As part of the English National Curriculum in primary school, students are taught about the impact of the Roman Empire on Britain. However, I highly doubt that many people reading this article were taught about the black ‘Ivory Bangle Lady’ of York or the North African soldiers that were stationed near Carlisle or even the first African Roman Emperor. History needs to be taught in its entirety and that includes the significant contribution that Africans made to Roman Britain.
The First World War is celebrated as the first globalised war, however, the experience and contributions of non-Europeans remain sidelined. The First World War saw the increased use of colonial troops, as well as the implementation of Charles Mangin’s ‘martial hierarchy’. This advocated an ideology of difference through the segregation and subordination of all those who were not white. This also created a racialised hierarchy whereby the treatment, experience and rank of colonial troops were determined by their race.
Recent events have drawn attention to the marginalisation of non-white actors in history, driving calls for more inclusive historical coverage. The ignorance of historical and contemporary contributions by certain groups of society creates prejudiced and narrow narratives that perpetuate implicit bias and continue racism. Sports provide a valuable route to analyse why and how this racism emerges and offers a platform to challenge it. Unfortunately, sports history has been side-lined from mainstream academia due to ‘intellectual snobbery’. As a part of popular culture, it has been considered unworthy of attention. However, it is precisely this mass appeal as the ‘language of common people’ that allows sport to play a central role in society. In the drive for the establishment of anti-racism practices and beliefs, sport cannot be left out. It has shaped how history has been made and written and will undoubtedly shape how future policy is formed and received.
In Shakespeare’s plays, ‘madness’ plagues many of the characters. It is thought that the work of John Hall, a physician and Shakespeare’s son-in-law, influenced the playwright’s depiction of mental illness to some degree.
Physicians could explain some mental illnesses by drawing on ancient ideas. The concept of the four humours, created by Hippocrates and Galen, was extremely influential in shaping theories around mental illnesses. In the 16th and 17th century, they believed that the body and the mind were both connected. The mind did not cause ‘madness’ but was a symptom of a physical ailment. In The Anatomy of Melancholy from 1621, Robert Burton identified the illness of ‘melancholy’, which we would label as depression. He described it as a ‘fear’ and ‘despair’ that emerged without an external cause. He suggested that ‘melancholy’ was caused when one of the four humours, black bile, was out of balance with the others. Shakespeare would often create characters that had symptoms of depression, such as Hamlet and Romeo, with another one stating that “I know not why I am so sad.”
When we think of ‘history’ there are probably two images that pop into our minds: one of a grey-haired, old professors hunched over a dusty tomb of ancient words, or one of grand manor houses and castles, high ceilings and banquets fit for kings and queens. It is this split between ideas of history, between academic and social influences, that defines and shapes how we engage with our past, and how our past shapes us.
For this edition of New Histories, we wanted to provide a space for students to discuss mental health throughout history, and so many have done so brilliantly. While there has no doubt been much disruption due to the impact of COVID-19, it is great to see so many students engaging with their historical interests and bringing them to you!
‘The desolation of Eyam by the plague, in years 1665 and 1666’, wrote the Victorian William Wood, ‘has no parallel; not even that of the “Black Death” of the fourteenth century’. According to Wood, it was the severity of the scourge in Eyam, being ‘more dreadful and fatal … than of any other pestilence hitherto recorded’, that has guaranteed its place within the history books. Nowadays, the Derbyshire village is at the epicentre of Britain’s plague heritage.
In 1936, António Egas Moniz proposed the Lobotomy, a form of brain surgery that physicians believed would provide a cure for the baffling condition of schizophrenia. According to a reputable medical journal, The Lancet, a ‘long hollow needle… to which is attached a loop of strong wire’ was inserted into the brain and blindly rotated to ‘cut a core of white substance’ in the prefrontal cortex. This description causes extreme discomfort for the modern-day reader. With what we know today, it is clear that the only thing this surgery achieved was extensive brain damage in patients. For contemporaries, however, this was considered an innovative, miracle cure. In fact, the treatment was so acclaimed, it won Egas Moniz a Nobel Prize in 1949, thirteen years after his first conception of the idea.
It becomes an almost impossible task to single out how colonial Britain saw mental health in a period of high colonialism. In the contemporary, however, psychiatric science was by its very nature a by-product of colonialism. In India, traditional methods of healing and dealing with madness were common and available to the British upon their arrival. Ignorance in imperialism became apparent as the British brought conceptions such as the sequestration of the insane, taking place immediately in the late 18th Century.
The Holocaust has been remembered in history as one of the most devastating atrocities on behalf of humanity. The large-scale and centrally coordinated genocidal attack on minority groups, mostly constituting of Jews, possesses the largest magnitude of deaths in history. Yet, the many other acts of genocides that were of consistent occurrence throughout the twentieth century cannot be overlooked. As Robert Melson, an author in the field of genocide studies and a holocaust survivor himself stated, ‘I would suggest that if the Holocaust is not compared to past and contemporary instances of genocide, its message and significance will wither’. This reinforces that the devastation caused by genocidal attacks on specific populations is not solely an issue for the victims of the system, but instead an assault on humanity as a whole. Moreover, Melson asserts the importance of identifying parallels between the holocaust to other examples of genocide; in this instance, I will draw comparisons from the holocaust to the atrocities that the British Empire itself was accountable for, both directly and indirectly.