October 13, 2012

My Researcher Profile: Finishing

What have you enjoyed about your URSS project?

I have enjoyed the independence that came with the project, that I was essentially able to design, conduct, review, refine and write up my own original research. I enjoyed the experience of working for a week in the National Archives. Though cutting my notes down from 60,000 to 5,000 words for a Reinvention article was frustrating, the satisfaction of submitting a finished piece of original research for peer review was worth it.

What have you found difficult?

One of the major problems I had was that I assumed allof the sources I would need would be stored at the National Archives, as they were all listed on the National Archives catalogue. However, some of the most germane sources were located at the Caird Library in the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich. This was unfortunately closed from the beginning of July to the middle of September as a result of the Olympic and Paralympic games. If I were to do it again, I would have tried to have accessed or ordered the documents from this library before starting my project. As it was, I was forced to shift the focus of my research away from slavery and towards language used in the contemporary domestic debate around impressment. Thus it may be said that I side-stepped rather than overcame this issue.

My other significant problem was with the word limit of the article. As the proud owner of an article around 15,000 words in length, it was to my dismay that I learned that the maximum length of a reinvention article is 5,000 words. Obviously with better planning and forethought this could have been avoided; as it was the editing process was difficult and somewhat painful. I have to thank my supervisor Mark Knights for identifying the real strengths of my argument, and suggesting where I could cut it down. It is thanks to him that the article is sharper, shorter and more interesting.

How do you feel that completing a project has/can help you?

I have gained much confidence finding and using relevant first hand sources from a huge mass of documents, which I had previously considered the domain of established and expert professors. I am also now much better able to read and make sense of scripts from the eighteenth century. I have also significantly enhanced my ability to skim-read, which I had previously found to be a weakness of mine, as I frequently found entire documents engrossing and was often side-tracked. Writing an article about original research has been an eye-opener, certainly far-removed from undergraduate essays I have written up until now. All these skills are certain to prove invaluable in my final year of study at Warwick, particularly when writing my dissertation.

The project has helped me to decide that although I find history research very interesting, I would want to try something else, perhaps more practical, before continuing with further study. Nonetheless without URSS I would not have been able to determine this before graduating.

Nonetheless many of the skills honed by planning, conducting and collating the findings of an independent research project such as a rigorous focus on only the most germane information, and the ability to locate, read and contextualise this information, are transferable ones useful in many careers. They have particular application in areas such as NGO and journalistic work in which research, while not necessarily purely academic, has a vital function.

How did you find out about the URSS scheme?

Through a friend who had taken part in the scheme in a previous years.

What are your 3 top tips for URSS students about to start work on their research projects?

1. Check where you will get your information from, and especially if this is a physical institution such as an archive, library or laboratory, make sure you can access these during the period in which you are conducting your research.

2. Liase closely with your supervisors, they really are the best people to help you.

3. Make sure you fully understand the requirements of the expected outcomes - word-limits, deadlines etc.

What's next for you?

Trying to achieve a first class bachelor's degree, then hopefully a year working as an intern at an NGO or DFID, before a Masters.

How would you sum up your URSS experience in one sentence?

I feel that the URSS has offered me a brilliant opportunity and insight into the world of post-graduate academics researching original work.

Recommendations for the URSS


September 17, 2012

Final Reflective Blog

What were your key objectives for completing the URSS and have they been met?

My key objectives in completing the URSS were threefold.

Firstly I wanted to take advantage of an opportunity to conduct extensive original research independent of my studies. I felt this could break down the notion of undergraduates as passive recipients of accepted wisdom. Having completed the project I would confirm that it has enabled me to turn from “student” to “researcher”, and while I would not contend that my work is as valuable as that of other historians who have worked on these themes, I feel I was at least fully able to engage at this high level.

Secondly, in terms of content, I wanted to discover how impressment related to enslavement of Africans, and how British society was able to reconcile itself to these two brutal institutions. I also hoped to gain an insight into whether pamphleteers’ appeals to liberty and comparisons with slavery reflected or even helped form a sense of affinity between impressed men and black sailors. I believe I was able to address the first two issues competently, but I was unable to establish any convincing evidence one way or another about affinity between pressed men and blacks. In my preparatory reading of secondary historical works, it became clear that Bolster had come closest to answering this question in his work Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail. I decided I was unlikely to be able to add much original analysis to this seminal study, and therefore moved on to address the other themes in more detail.

My final objective was related to outcomes; I aimed to write an article of analysis distilled from the projected in Reinvention: The Journal of Undergraduate Research, and also produce a podcast for the Early Modern Forum. Thus far I have completed the article (it is currently awaiting peer review) and I am working on the podcast. I judge the article to be competent, and it fills in a current gap in the historiography of the press gang, namely that of how contemporaries tried to negotiate the implications of impressment within the framework of the supposed liberties every Englishman enjoyed.

What skills have you gained by completing the URSS project that you will utilise in your studies or other aspects of your working life?

I have gained much confidence finding and using relevant first hand sources from a huge mass of documents, which I had previously considered the domain of established and expert professors. I am also now much better able to read and make sense of scripts from the eighteenth century. I have also significantly enhanced my ability to skim-read, which I had previously found to be a weakness of mine, as I frequently found entire documents engrossing and was often side-tracked. Writing an article about original research has been an eye-opener, certainly far-removed from undergraduate essays I have written up until now, and will doubtless prove invaluable experience for writing my dissertation.

Finally the production of my project’s outcomes (the article, the podcast, the poster) has certainly honed my editing skills. At one point I had over 60,000 words of notes, and condensing and analysing these has made me realise the value of a well thought out plan and structure.

What will you do differently as a result of your URSS experience?

Having conducted research myself, it has become abundantly clear how fallible this process is, and I will therefore no longer treat all academics’ works as gospel truth. An insight into the sheer scale of historical experience revealed in the sources has lead to a deal of healthy scepticism about broad-brush conclusions about the past.

Have there been any unexpected outcomes of taking part in the URSS?

Despite a few setbacks, I had honestly expected original research to be in many ways more difficult than it proved to be. In fact, it revealed the possibilities for undergraduates to conduct almost boundless further research.

What would you consider as your highlights of the URSS process?

The week in the National Archives at Kew was an undoubted highlight of the project. Handling documents which were in some cases more than three hundred years old was very exciting. Many of the sources I accessed had not been read since being initially filled sometime in the twenties. Reading the journals, memos, articles, speeches, court cases and diaries of eighteenth century people brought home that although the issue of impressment seems very foreign to us, the terms of the debate and the people behind it are startlingly similar to much current political discussion.

The satisfaction at seeing and reading my finished article was also enormous, and I hope to have the pleasure of reading it (alongside many other excellent articles) in a coming edition of Reinvention.

Did you encounter any challenges, issues or difficulties whilst partaking in the URSS? How did you overcome them?

One of the major problems I had was that I assumed allof the sources I would need would be stored at the National Archives, as they were all listed on the National Archives catalogue. However, some of the most germane sources were located at the Caird Library in the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich. This was unfortunately closed from the beginning of July to the middle of September as a result of the Olympics and Paralympics. If I were to do it again, I would have tried to have accessed or ordered the documents from this library before starting my project. As it was, I was forced to slightly shift the focus of my research away from slavery and towards language used in the contemporary domestic debate around impressment. Thus it may be said that I side-stepped rather than overcame this issue.

My other significant problem was with the word limit of the article. As the proud owner of an article around 15,000 words in length, it was to my dismay that I learned that the maximum length of a reinvention article is 5,000 words. Obviously with better planning and forethought this could have been avoided; as it was the editing process was difficult and somewhat painful. I have to thank my supervisor Mark Knights for identifying the real strengths of my argument, and suggesting where I could cut it down. It is thanks to him that the article is sharper, shorter and more interesting.

How do you feel about the URSS now that you have completed your project?

I feel that the URSS has offered me a brilliant opportunity and insight into the world of post-graduate academics researching original work. Without its support I would not have been able to sample this before graduating, and it has certainly helped define my research interests and possible career path.


Researcher Development Goal 2

What was the objective you set yourself?

To use the skills I had learned at the National Archives and transfer them to an interrogation of over ten online historical databases, without the help of experts which I had enjoyed at Kew.

What actions did you take to achieve it?

I used a trial-and-error methodology in an attempt to locate relevant sources, by playing with the parameters of my searches. I found that some databases were far more useful than others. Unlike at the National Archives where most of the sources were letters of a maximum of four sides, many of the online sources such as newspapers, pamphlets and court records were very lengthy documents. I therefore had to develop my ability to skim read, in order not to waste time reading irrelevancies.

How do you know you have achieved your goal?

Though I am still waiting for peer review of the article I have written, my supervisor judged it to be a strong and interesting piece with insightful analysis. I therefore believe I was successful in using the databases to find pertinent and important sources, which made it possible to address some, though not all, of the lines of enquiry I had set myself. Over the course of the project I felt I was able to critically analyse sources increasingly well, and establish the authors’ position in the contemporary debates.

What new or existing skills have you developed as a result of achieving this objective?

As mentioned I have significantly enhanced my ability to skim-read, which I had previously found to be a weakness of mine, as I frequently found entire documents engrossing and was often side-tracked. By setting myself strict deadlines, I was able to force myself to pass over the superfluous (though often fascinating) information.

How will these support your research project, studies or career?

Clearly, in both academic and non-academic spheres with strict deadlines, the ability to rigorously focus only on that which is useful for a project’s intended outcome is a strength.

If you were to set yourself the same objective again, what would you do differently?

Despite accessing around a dozen databases I relied heavily on several in particular. Perhaps a more balanced interrogation of databases would have had a positive impact on the project. Specifically I would have enjoyed examining more court cases on impressment, as the linguistic debate could sometimes become a bit abstract and dry. More relation of language to practice in the court room could have also spiced up my article somewhat.


Researcher Development Goal 1

What was the objective you set yourself?

I hoped to be able to be effectively able to locate, read and contextualise archival sources which I accessed at the National Archives.

What actions did you take to achieve it?

I made sure to complete the full induction and training programmes at the National Archives. This enabled me to learn how best to use the cataloguing system there and how to handle fragile documents. When I was unable to read a particular word, I read through the document seeking to resolve the word through the sense of the paragraph. I also tried through process of elimination to establish what letter a symbol could represent, by scanning the document to see how that author wrote particular letters. In a few cases I consulted expert members of staff for help. In terms of contextualisation there was usually an excellent paragraph on the database system summing up the themes the document addressed.

How do you know you have achieved your goal?

Initially, and as anticipated, I had a few problems reading the eighteenth century handwriting, but with practice and some guidance from staff, I was able to decipher practically every word. The long-winded sentences of the period meant however that making sense of the paragraphs was also slightly problematic. I resolved this by typing up what I read as I progressed and then reading over what I had typed.

I feel that I located and read some very germane and fascinating documents, which enabled me to begin to answer some of the complex questions I had set myself. Considering the eminent historian Nicolas Rogers has written that the National Archives sources on impressment are a ‘virtual black hole’, I consider this no mean feat.

What new or existing skills have you developed as a result of achieving this objective?

I have gained much confidence finding and using relevant first hand sources from a huge mass of documents from the eighteenth century, which I had previously considered the domain of established and expert professors. I am also now much better able to read and make sense of scripts from the eighteenth century.

How will these support your research project, studies or career?

This ability to locate, read and contextualise original documents is certainly invaluable skill for future study. I also see it having application in research which is not necessarily purely academic, such as that for political organisations and journalism.

If you were to set yourself the same objective again, what would you do differently?

One of the major problems I had was that I assumed all of the sources I would need would be stored at the National Archives, as they were all listed on the National Archives catalogue. However, some of the most germane sources were located at the Caird Library in the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich. This was unfortunately closed from the beginning of July to the middle of September as a result of the Olympics and Paralympics. If I were to do it again, I would have tried to have accessed or ordered the documents from this library before starting my project. I would possibly also have extended my time at the National Archives, as there really was almost an infinite amount of fascinating information.


URSS Action Plan

Summary

URSSAction Plan

Summary

This project should result in article summarising the research published in Reinvention: The Journal of Undergraduate Research, and a podcast for the Early Modern Forum, which is an international research platform that has been developed by my supervisor and others to enable international collaboration. These will essentially be distilled and refined analyses and conclusions resulting from working first hand with archival and database sources.

Actions

Researcher Development Goal 1

What is the challenge or skill that I would like to develop?

Working in the National Archives presents an enormous challenge, especially given the short space of time I will be there (one week). I will need to learn how to identify the most relevant documents (a fairly tricky task given the sheer volume of titles) and how to optimise my time with them, focusing rigorously only on pertinent extracts. The eighteenth century script, both written and printed, could also pose a challenge to read. My goal therefore is that by the end of my time in the National Archives I would like to have learned how historians pinpoint the most relevant sources, overcome any difficulties with the document itself, and appropriately contextualise the information the source provides.

What am I going to do to achieve this?

The small timeframe means I will have to develop the necessary skills quickly. The fastest way to do this would obviously be to seek out the help offered by employees at the National Archives, to help me get the most out of their database and referencing system.

Why have I chosen this particular objective?

Archival work forms the backbone of much historical research, and should also help me develop some of the skills I will need when working with the online newspaper databases. Therefore learning how to quickly sift and filter vast quantities of information is probably the key to being able answer some of the posited questions at the analysis stage of my research.

Is this achievable within the timeframe and resources available?

Clearly the week I will spend at the National Archives is a tight timeframe to hone these skills. However the National Archives has some of the best archival resources in the country, from their database to their staff, with should facilitate my research there. I hope to at least improve these skills during my time there.

When will I achieve this by?

I hope to at least partially accomplish some of these skills by the end of my week at Kew, but the nature of the subsequent research is relatively similar, so a gradual progress should hopefully result in the achievement of this Researcher Goal by the end of my project.

How am I going to know that I have been successful?

I believe that, if at the end of the project, I am able to successfully provide answers to some of my lines of enquiry I will be able to say that I utilised the archives successfully.

Researcher Development Goal 2

What is the challenge or skill that I would like to develop?

Following on from the archival work, the second stage of the project will revolve primarily around interrogating online historical databases, and this constitutes the bulk of the project. While many of the skills are the same (refining search terms, locating relevant documents, contextualising primary sources etc), there will not be as much support on hand if I run into difficulties. I will be using up to ten different online databases to which Warwick subscribes, ranging from the Eighteenth Century Collection Online, to Parliamentary Papers and the Burney Collection of 17th-18thcentury newspapers. I also wish to make some attempt to relate language to practice. I shall therefore make use of Old Bailey Online, which contains the records of one of the key criminal courts in London, for trials relating to impressment.

What am I going to do to achieve this?

I will apply the skills learned in my week in the archives to hopefully reveal a great deal about this topic through an interrogation of eighteenth century newspapers and pamphlets.

Clearly the scale of this project means that I will need to approach this task in a methodical and logical manner. Possibly even “trial-and-error” would be an appropriate approach to locate relevant sources – learning how to frame my searches to optimise results. These online archives are searchable by individual word and can even identify which words are used in close proximity to any search term, a useful tool that will help me explore the terms associated with slavery and impressment.

Why have I chosen this particular objective?

The vast majority of the sources I will examine will be found on these online databases. Consequently the realisation of this Researcher Goal is crucial to the successful completion of my project. If I prove unable to master these skills, or to contextualise the sources in a critical fashion, my analysis will be very weak and inconclusive.

Is this achievable within the timeframe and resources available?

Measuring success and progress will prove difficult, I can’t move to some “final realisation” of these skills, they will always remain imperfect, incomplete and subjective. Nevertheless I believe that over the course of the project I will be able to substantially improve my skills of critical analysis and database research.

When will I achieve this by?

By the end of the research period.

How am I going to know that I have been successful?

Producing verifiable evidence that I have somehow “accomplished” this goal is neigh on impossible, but as with the first Research Goal, the successful completion of a podcast and journal article for two important academic forums, Reinvention and the Early Modern Forum, would indicate that I had achieved my Researcher Goals. Feedback from peer-reviewers and my supervisor will highlight weaknesses with the research, and should demonstrate whether or not I used the archives and databases effectively.


My Researcher Profile

Name: Matthew Jenkins

Department: History

Project Department: History

Supervisor: Mark Knights

Why does your URSS project interest you?

An investigation into the linguistic relationship between impressment into the navy and the varied meanings of slavery in the eighteenth century promises to be very rewarding. Primarily this is because the irony of Britons being “enslaved” to preserve cherished “English liberties” proved fertile ground for contemporary polemists and pamphleteers. The presence of manumitted black slaves on naval vessels presents another fascinating component to which eighteenth century writers reacted in diverse and surprising ways.

I want to discover how impressments, often regarded as literal enslavement, related to the enslavement of black men, especially in the context of civil and religious freedoms enshrined in the revolution of 1688. I hope to reveal how a society which prided itself on supposed individual freedoms managed to reconcile these contradictions. Finally, it would be fascinating to see if pamphleteers’ appeals to liberty and comparisons with slavery reflected or even helped form a sense of affinity between impressed men and black sailors.

The URSS offers an opportunity for me to investigate this theme by acting as a stepping stone between undergraduate study and extensive original research. Importantly this can help break down the notion of undergraduates as passive recipients of accepted wisdom.

What are you hoping to achieve through your URSS project?

I am hoping to have an article summarising the research published in Reinvention: The Journal of Undergraduate Research, and produce a podcast for the Early Modern Forum, which is an international research platform that has been developed by my supervisor and others to enable international collaboration. I therefore hope that my research findings will reach a fairly wide audience.

Conducting and writing-up an in-depth research project clearing has its own rewards, but above these the peer-reviews and Professor Knights’s feedback will invaluable preparation for final year. Should I also choose to pursue further study the project provides an excellent introduction to original research and journal writing. Even if the project weakens my interest in an academic career, the skills gained from planning, conducting and collating the findings of an independent research project are transferable ones useful in many careers.

What new skills are you hoping to develop?

As I see it, there are three main skills I will need to acquire or improve. Firstly interrogating a database. While this is something I have done before, clearly the scale of this project, and the fact that almost all of the sources will be found on online databases, means that I will need to approach this task in a methodical and logical manner. Possibly even “trial-and-error” would be an appropriate approach to locate relevant sources – learning how to frame my searches to optimise results.

Secondly working in an archive, in this case the National Archives, will be completely new for me. I will need to learn, doubtless with the help of employees there, how I can make the most out of my week there, and identify the most relevant documents. In some cases reading the eighteenth century script itself might take a bit of getting used to. I also will need to keep in mind all of the basic questions a historian must ask himself when working with a text, who wrote it, for what purpose etc, and also be aware that some key concepts may have had different connotations at the time of writing. On top of this I will need to bear in mind that just because something is asserted in one source, I will need to cross-reference this with many other sources to see if this information is correct – as this is original research I will need to be doubly careful about making unfounded claims. In other words I will need to be very thorough with a view to placing documents in their appropriate context.

Finally, writing for an academic journal is again something I have never done before. I will need to develop new skills with a view to style, presentation, format and argumentation – an article in a journal is no mere undergraduate essay.

What contribution to knowledge could your URSS project make?

One way in which the research will certainly contribute to our knowledge about the press gang is through a thorough examination of the English press. In the last few years a host of 17th-19thnewspaper databases have been made available online (the most important being the Burney collection), and these were not available to authors who have previously written about impressment. While Rogers and Ennis have discussed representations of impressment in the forms of novels, plays, autobiographies and ballads, until now no-one has made proper use of the widespread coverage of the press gang in newspapers and pamphlets.

I hope to be able to answer some of the following lines of enquiry after analysing my research.

  1. Did both critics and supporters of impressment in the printed word ground their arguments in the same language of ancient English liberties?
  2. How was interaction between the pressers and the pressed was framed in the language of service and slavery? In particular how did each side portray the “affrays” and resistance to the Press Gang?
  3. By relating language to practice by looking at court records of anti-impressment trials and a comparison of black sailors/slaves and pressed men, I hope to reveal more about contemporary attitudes and beliefs about the institutions of slavery and impressment.
  4. Did British society manage to reconcile the contradictions of civil liberties and slavery as the Establishment hoped?
  5. Did the two campaigns against slavery and impressment share resources, campaigners, ideas and momentum?
  6. Did the appeals to liberty and metaphor of enslavement reflect or even help nurture sense of affinity between black tars and impressed men?

July 17, 2012

Researcher Development Goals

URSSAction Plan

Summary

This project should result in article summarising the research published in Reinvention: The Journal of Undergraduate Research, and a podcast for the Early Modern Forum, which is an international research platform that has been developed by my supervisor and others to enable international collaboration. These will essentially be distilled and refined analyses and conclusions resulting from working first hand with archival and database sources.

Actions

Researcher Development Goal 1

What is the challenge or skill that I would like to develop?

Working in the National Archives presents an enormous challenge, especially given the short space of time I will be there (one week). I will need to learn how to identify the most relevant documents (a fairly tricky task given the sheer volume of titles) and how to optimise my time with them, focusing rigorously only on pertinent extracts. The eighteenth century script, both written and printed, could also pose a challenge to read. My goal therefore is that by the end of my time in the National Archives I would like to have learned how historians pinpoint the most relevant sources, overcome any difficulties with the document itself, and appropriately contextualise the information the source provides.

What am I going to do to achieve this?

The small timeframe means I will have to develop the necessary skills quickly. The fastest way to do this would obviously be to seek out the help offered by employees at the National Archives, to help me get the most out of their database and referencing system.

Why have I chosen this particular objective?

Archival work forms the backbone of much historical research, and should also help me develop some of the skills I will need when working with the online newspaper databases. Therefore learning how to quickly sift and filter vast quantities of information is probably the key to being able answer some of the posited questions at the analysis stage of my research.

Is this achievable within the timeframe and resources available?

Clearly the week I will spend at the National Archives is a tight timeframe to hone these skills. However the National Archives has some of the best archival resources in the country, from their database to their staff, with should facilitate my research there. I hope to at least improve these skills during my time there.

When will I achieve this by?

I hope to at least partially accomplish some of these skills by the end of my week at Kew, but the nature of the subsequent research is relatively similar, so a gradual progress should hopefully result in the achievement of this Researcher Goal by the end of my project.

How am I going to know that I have been successful?

I believe that, if at the end of the project, I am able to successfully provide answers to some of my lines of enquiry I will be able to say that I utilised the archives successfully.


Researcher Development Goal 2

What is the challenge or skill that I would like to develop?

Following on from the archival work, the second stage of the project will revolve primarily around interrogating online historical databases, and this constitutes the bulk of the project. While many of the skills are the same (refining search terms, locating relevant documents, contextualising primary sources etc), there will not be as much support on hand if I run into difficulties. I will be using up to ten different online databases to which Warwick subscribes, ranging from the Eighteenth Century Collection Online, to Parliamentary Papers and the Burney Collection of 17th-18th century newspapers. I also wish to make some attempt to relate language to practice. I shall therefore make use of Old Bailey Online, which contains the records of one of the key criminal courts in London, for trials relating to impressment.

What am I going to do to achieve this?

I will apply the skills learned in my week in the archives to hopefully reveal a great deal about this topic through an interrogation of eighteenth century newspapers and pamphlets.

Clearly the scale of this project means that I will need to approach this task in a methodical and logical manner. Possibly even “trial-and-error” would be an appropriate approach to locate relevant sources – learning how to frame my searches to optimise results. These online archives are searchable by individual word and can even identify which words are used in close proximity to any search term, a useful tool that will help me explore the terms associated with slavery and impressment.

Why have I chosen this particular objective?

The vast majority of the sources I will examine will be found on these online databases. Consequently the realisation of this Researcher Goal is crucial to the successful completion of my project. If I prove unable to master these skills, or to contextualise the sources in a critical fashion, my analysis will be very weak and inconclusive.

Is this achievable within the timeframe and resources available?

Measuring success and progress will prove difficult, I can’t move to some “final realisation” of these skills, they will always remain imperfect, incomplete and subjective. Nevertheless I believe that over the course of the project I will be able to substantially improve my skills of critical analysis and database research.

When will I achieve this by?

By the end of the research period.

How am I going to know that I have been successful?

Producing verifiable evidence that I have somehow “accomplished” this goal is neigh on impossible, but as with the first Research Goal, the successful completion of a podcast and journal article for two important academic forums, Reinvention and the Early Modern Forum, would indicate that I had achieved my Researcher Goals. Feedback from peer-reviewers and my supervisor will highlight weaknesses with the research, and should demonstrate whether or not I used the archives and databases effectively.


July 16, 2012

Researcher Profile

July 16, 2012

My Researcher Profile

Name:Matthew Jenkins

Department:History

Supervisor:Mark Knights

Why does your URSS project interest you?

An investigation into the linguistic relationship between impressment into the navy and the varied meanings of slavery in the eighteenth century promises to be very rewarding. Primarily this is because the irony of Britons being “enslaved” to preserve cherished “English liberties” proved fertile ground for contemporary polemists and pamphleteers. The presence of manumitted black slaves on naval vessels presents another fascinating component to which eighteenth century writers reacted in diverse and surprising ways.

I want to discover how impressments, often regarded as literal enslavement, related to the enslavement of black men, especially in the context of civil and religious freedoms enshrined in the revolution of 1688. I hope to reveal how a society which prided itself on supposed individual freedoms managed to reconcile these contradictions. Finally, it would be fascinating to see if pamphleteers’ appeals to liberty and comparisons with slavery reflected or even helped form a sense of affinity between impressed men and black sailors.

The URSS offers an opportunity for me to investigate this theme by acting as a stepping stone between undergraduate study and extensive original research. Importantly this can help break down the notion of undergraduates as passive recipients of accepted wisdom.

What are you hoping to achieve through your URSS project?

I am hoping to have an article summarising the research published in Reinvention: The Journal of Undergraduate Research, and produce a podcast for the Early Modern Forum, which is an international research platform that has been developed by my supervisor and others to enable international collaboration. I therefore hope that my research findings will reach a fairly wide audience.

Conducting and writing-up an in-depth research project clearing has its own rewards, but above these the peer-reviews and Professor Knights’s feedback will invaluable preparation for final year. Should I also choose to pursue further study the project provides an excellent introduction to original research and journal writing. Even if the project weakens my interest in an academic career, the skills gained from planning, conducting and collating the findings of an independent research project are transferable ones useful in many careers.

What new skills are you hoping to develop?

As I see it, there are three main skills I will need to acquire or improve. Firstly interrogating a database. While this is something I have done before, clearly the scale of this project, and the fact that almost all of the sources will be found on online databases, means that I will need to approach this task in a methodical and logical manner. Possibly even “trial-and-error” would be an appropriate approach to locate relevant sources – learning how to frame my searches to optimise results.

Secondly working in an archive, in this case the National Archives, will be completely new for me. I will need to learn, doubtless with the help of employees there, how I can make the most out of my week there, and identify the most relevant documents. In some cases reading the eighteenth century script itself might take a bit of getting used to. I also will need to keep in mind all of the basic questions a historian must ask himself when working with a text, who wrote it, for what purpose etc, and also be aware that some key concepts may have had different connotations at the time of writing. On top of this I will need to bear in mind that just because something is asserted in one source, I will need to cross-reference this with many other sources to see if this information is correct – as this is original research I will need to be doubly careful about making unfounded claims. In other words I will need to be very thorough with a view to placing documents in their appropriate context.

Finally, writing for an academic journal is again something I have never done before. I will need to develop new skills with a view to style, presentation, format and argumentation – an article in a journal is no mere undergraduate essay.

What contribution to knowledge could your URSS project make?

One way in which the research will certainly contribute to our knowledge about the press gang is through a thorough examination of the English press. In the last few years a host of 17th-19th newspaper databases have been made available online (the most important being the Burney collection), and these were not available to authors who have previously written about impressment. While Rogers and Ennis have discussed representations of impressment in the forms of novels, plays, autobiographies and ballads, until now no-one has made proper use of the widespread coverage of the press gang in newspapers and pamphlets.

I hope to be able to answer some of the following lines of enquiry after analysing my research.

  1. Did both critics and supporters of impressment in the printed word ground their arguments in the same language of ancient English liberties?
  2. How was interaction between the pressers and the pressed was framed in the language of service and slavery? In particular how did each side portray the “affrays” and resistance to the Press Gang?
  3. By relating language to practice by looking at court records of anti-impressment trials and a comparison of black sailors/slaves and pressed men, I hope to reveal more about contemporary attitudes and beliefs about the institutions of slavery and impressment.
  4. Did British society manage to reconcile the contradictions of civil liberties and slavery as the Establishment hoped?
  5. Did the two campaigns against slavery and impressment share resources, campaigners, ideas and momentum?
  6. Did the appeals to liberty and metaphor of enslavement reflect or even help nurture sense of affinity between black tars and impressed men?

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