New Histories Forward

For this edition of New Histories, we wanted to encourage students to engage with the topic of ‘decolonising the curriculum’. By no means is this an attempt to provide an all-encompassing account: some of the articles here are the authors’ first time engaging with topics outside of those prescribed by our current curriculum. But, by providing the space to talk about the histories, cultures, and individuals that are overlooked by our current syllabus, we hope to continue those much needed conversations on race, privilege, and inequalities in current society that filters on into academia. With this edition, we want to invite students into this conversation to encourage self-reflection: firstly, on the state of our current syllabus, and secondly, on our own prejudices. 

The inspiration behind this edition came from the Race, Ethnicity and Equality report, published by the Royal Historical Society in November last year. The report regards the current History curricula as a central cause of the under – representation of BME students (and staff), in history departments across the U.K. Undoubtedly, the fear of being unable to identify with the curriculum serves as a major deterrent for potential history students, and is clearly a major concern for many current students.

We understand that the task of decolonising the curriculum is a mammoth one — but, by working with students, the history department has begun to take steps in the right direction. Facilitated by Dr. Emily Baughan, both student and staff members of the Race, Equalities and Decolonisation(RED) Working Party have begun to curate a curriculum that welcomes and engages with all students. We hope that New Histories can be utilised for both the aims of RED and History in the City to give a platform for this discussion. 

For us, to ‘decolonise the curriculum’ is to actively recognise our positionality and subjectivities in relation to the histories we encounter. We need to question the current historical canon; question the ‘default’ eurocentric narrative; question white-washed reading lists; and question the absence of BME scholars. For us, to ‘decolonise the curriculum’ is to challenge the framework of our syllabus, and to challenge the prescribed narratives which elevate some voices, whilst silencing others. 

The purpose of this edition is to shed light on histories sidelined by our syllabus, not to provide a single solution to this problem: simply, there is not one solution. We hope that these articles will further encourage the vital conversations about the lack of representation in the current curriculum.

We appreciate that this task transcends what can be achieved through a student-led e-zine. However, we believe that the articles in this edition afford an excellent starting point — we hope you feel so too. 

Amanda Boateng and Hannah Casey

Indian Removal in Antebellum America – A Destiny Fulfilled?

In discussing the antebellum period of American history, you will be hard-pressed to find a historian who does not emphasise the narrative of slavery, and its ultimate abolition in the mid-1860s. The historiography surrounding slavery in America – particularly in the context of the Civil War – continues to be expanded upon and enriched with lively debate. However, within this narrative, the role of Native Americans within antebellum history has been marginalised, both in terms of historiographical focus and in university lecture halls.

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Resistance and Negotiation: Reclaiming the Voices of Colonised Women

In the middle of the nineteenth century, single women missionaries began travelling to India in increasingly large numbers to evangelise Indian women, contributing to the imperial ‘civilising mission’. Over the decades, these women missionaries produced a vast amount of colonial knowledge and discourse about Indian women concerning their overall ‘condition’ and their characteristics. Their writings were exported back to Britain in the form of letters, magazines and books, making Indian women ‘accessible’ to the public at home. They were read by people of all ages, with certain texts aimed at adults, and simpler books written for children and young supporters of the missions. However, these texts are far more representative of the colonial relationship between British missionary women and indigenous women than of the people they claimed to represent. By deconstructing these texts, we can unpick some of the dynamics of this relationship, as well as begin to piece together the voices of the Indian women that these missionaries encountered.

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History in Film – to what extent do filmmakers have a responsibility to be historically accurate and inclusive?

The portrayal of historical events in film is by no means a novelty, for not only does it serve as a foundation for imaginative storytelling but also enables the public to access history in a recreational way. However, as the line between creative license and historical accuracy becomes blurred it does draw into question…how far filmmakers have a responsibility to be historically accurate?

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Decolonising the British Museum: where do we start?

If you say yes to one, you suddenly find the British Museum would be empty. It is going to have to stay put.

(David Cameron, asked to return the Koh-i-Noor diamond to India in 2010)

It’s been a year of reckoning with power. #MeToo, of course, but also an interesting (if small) exhibition at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. ‘#The PastIsNow’ brutally re-evaluated Birmingham’s relationship with its slave-trading history, exploring new interactive ways of displaying Britain’s difficult colonial past. Sumaya Kassim’s article, ‘The museum will not be decolonised’ is a great introduction to the issues it tackles.

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Betsy Ross and Rosie the Riveter: Mothers of America

The legend of Betsy Ross is a well-documented one, known by every American. The story goes that George Washington, William Morris and George Ross – representatives of the Continental Congress – arrived at Betsy’s house requesting her skills to make a new standard for the British colonies. While the stars and stripes design had already been agreed upon, it was Betsy who advised the use of a five-pointed star rather than six, as it would be easier to construct. And so, the American flag was born. Although there is no existing evidence to suggest any truth to this account, Betsy Ross still became a national icon and adopted the title ‘Founding Mother’ to stand alongside the Founding Fathers of America.

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Mr Five Per Cent: The Forgotten Oil Tycoon

When we think of modern history’s most notable business leaders, names of Western businessmen such as Henry Ford, John D. Rockefeller and Bill Gates immediately spring to mind. However, arguably one of the most influential and historically overlooked business minds of the twentieth century hailed from the Middle East. Calouste Sarkin Gulbenkian, otherwise known as “Mr. Five Percent”, was both a dedicated philanthropist and a strategic businessman, often credited as the first person to exploit Iraqi oil resources. In fact, by the time of his death in 1955, he had become one of the world’s richest men, accumulating a fortune of almost £5 billion by modern standards.

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The Lesser-known Atomic Bomb Testing: The tragedy of Maralinga

The nuclear testing of Maralinga was, and remains to a lesser articulated example of the nuclear atrocities conducted by the Western superpowers of the 20th Century. Coordinated by the British Royal Commissioners in Nuclear Testing, with the permission from the Australian Government, the British tested their nuclear weapons on the Anangu County and discarded the toxic chemicals around the surrounding areas in the 1950s. There were a total of 12 bombs experiments in the Emu Island, Montebello Island and Maralinga from 1955 to 1963. Perhaps the reasoning for its often historical absence can be situated in the consequences that resulted from the testing, as it was mostly aboriginal tribes of the southern region in Australia who were sadly caught in the nuclear radiations of the testing. The testing fallout continues to affect their descendants to this day, and shows how strong nuclear chemicals are. The history of the Cold War continues to avoid addressing responsibilities as doing so with examples like this may present a challenge to the dialogue and representation of indigenous people.

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How fear of conspiracy shapes US politics

JFK, the moon landing, Area 51. A tragically short-lived president, a globally acknowledged pinnacle of scientific achievement, and a key site during the height of Cold War tension and technological competition. Yet these events are more commonly associated with ideas of secrecy and conspiracy. American history is littered with examples of conspiratorial fear, a fear also occupying a dominant role in America’s political discourse. This climate has arguably led to a tendency to distort perceptions of current events, producing conditions susceptible to political demagoguery.

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The medieval beverage of choice: alcohol or water?

There is a strong misconception that people living in medieval times would primarily drink alcohol as it was believed that water was unsafe to drink. This misconception has been interrogated (changed word) by historians, bloggers, period dramas; throughout historiography, social media platforms and TV drama’s respectively. When we turn to today’s medieval period dramas like ‘The Tudors’, ‘Vikings’ and ‘The Borgias’, there is an image portrayed of medieval European nobles and notable families drinking red wine or beer as if it were the norm in their day to day lives and meals. How accurate is this portrayal of their drinking lifestyle? It begs the question that historians are grappling with; did medieval Europeans really take alcohol as their ‘routine drink’? In addition, is even asking that question with the sources available able to access beyond a particular demographic? For instance if we turn to the peasantry – did they too drank wine, can we access this information?

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