September 17, 2012

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?

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