Women’s memoirs of the West Indies

My PhD research focuses on connections between Ireland and the British West Indies from about 1770 until 1830. I hope to be able to weave the voices of some Irish women who had connections with the region through my work, but I suspect this will be a challenge. I found a few (very few) letters written by Irish women who lived in the Caribbean during my research at PRONI in Belfast, and am now looking for published (or unpublished for that matter) memoirs. I’ve found a number by women travellers from England, Scotland and north America, as well as a handful of works by non-white women. My search for a work by an Irish woman, however, continues. This list is not exhaustive and I may update it as I go. I haven’t done much secondary reading on this topic yet, but the most helpful work by far has been Evelyn O’Callaghan’s Women Writing the West Indies, 1804—1939, “A Hot Place, Belonging to Us” (Routledge, 2004).

Any recommendations or comments from you, dear reader, would be most welcome!

Perhaps the best-known published journal is that of Lady Nugent, wife of Sir George Nugent, who served as Governor of Jamaica at the beginning of the nineteenth century. This is a link to a published copy of her journal Lady Nugent’s Journal of Her Residence in Jamaica from 1801 to 1805.

Anne Powers, the author of A Parcel of Ribbons: The letters of an 18th Century Family in London and Jamaica, has reviewed two memoirs by female visitors to Jamaica in the nineteenth century: Martha Jefferson Trice’s A Lady in Jamaica 1879Link to Powers’ Review and Diana Lewes’ A Year in Jamaica, Memoirs of a girl in Arcadia in 1889Link to Review

I used the journal of a Scottish traveller, Janet Schaw, during my Masters research, for her description of the bustling island of St. Eustatius in the 1770s: Journal of a Lady of Quality: Being the Narrative of a Journey from Scotland to the West Indies, North Carolina, and Portugal, in the years 1774 to 1776

The Fate of the Fenwicks, Letters to Mary Hays (1798-1828), which (excitingly!) is available in digital form via the National Library of Australia here.

As for the writing of non-white women, O’Callaghan notes that the generally agreed chronology commences with the writings of Anne Hart Gilbert and Elizabeth Hart Thwaites (The Hart Sisters: Early African Caribbean Writers, Evangelicals, and Radicals, edited by Moira Ferguson (University of Nebraska Press, 1993)), followed by the History of Mary Prince, a West Indian Slave, Related by Herself  (1831), and concludes with Mary Seattle’s autobiographical Wonderful Adventures (1857). There is then a gap until the twentieth century. O’Callaghan notes (pp.2-3) that although very few texts by non-white women appeared, that does not mean that there was no women’s writing from the West Indies—although it seems that for a long time, academics did argue that such a void existed. The book goes on to discuss what O’Callaghan terms “narratives of the West Indies by women.”

We can hold more than one story in our heads #anzachistories

As History Week draws to a close in Sydney, this is a summary of the Symposium held to explore public and popular histories of Anzac. The Symposium was put together by Associate Professor Michelle Arrow, and was supported by the Modern History, Politics & International Relations Department, and the Centre for Media History at Macquarie University. These are my (possibly somewhat random) thoughts on the day. I hope not to mis-represent any of the arguments advanced during the day, and welcome comments from anyone who was there, or who would like to know more.

The day was a success, with some great presentations, excellent questions, and thought-provoking discussions. For the students in the audience, there were many hints from the speakers about areas crying out for further research (a history of the RSL anyone?)  I always think it’s well worth the price of admission to attend these sorts of events as listening to researchers and commentators invariably sparks creativity and questions, and avenues for further research.

The day opened with keynote addresses from Carolyn Holbrook and Anna Clark. Holbrook’s book Anzac the Unauthorized Biography was a joint winner of this year’s prize for an Australian First World War History, part of the NSW Premier’s History awards. Holbrook addressed the question of how we account for the change in attitude about Anzac from being a point of protest about war (the position for much of the last century), to today’s reverence for the sacrifice of naive young men, which seems to takes on more and more the mantle of a civic religion? Given the attachment of today’s Australian politicians to the ‘Anzac legend’ and the supposed un-Australianness of questioning it, can we blame politicians for the revival of the legend? Holbrook argued that no, the roots of the revival lie not in high politics, but rather in popular life. She noted Bill Gammage’s ground-breaking study of Australian WWI soldiers in The Broken Years, an approach which has been taken up by family historians, shifting the focus away from the military aspects of the War, towards the voices of the soldiers. Peter Weir’s 1981 film Gallipoli has something to do with this too.

Anna Clark addressed the question of Anzac and everyday historical consciousness, drawing on interviews undertaken with a variety of ‘ordinary’ Australians in her current research project Private Lives, Public History. Clark noted the “quite nuanced” views her interviewees expressed about Anzac, including conflicting, complicated thoughts and emotions, even for those with a personal connection to Anzac. Clark concluded by noting the complexity of vernacular historical consciousness. This resonates with me, and was a theme which emerged throughout the day. It is so easy to simplify thoughts and reactions to history—in this case Anzac—but history is never as simple as one uncomplicated story.

The panel on Anzac Fictions included a discussion of the history of Anzac in Australian cinema by Daniel Reynaud, Fay Anderson’s assessment of Deadline Gallipoli, and Kylie Flack’s fascinating review of representations of Anzac in Australian junior historical fiction since 2000. I mean to follow up Reynaud’s claim that the footage we often see on Australian TV of the landing at Gallipoli is genuine, but rather is from The Hero of the Dardanelles, a 1915 movie filmed at Sydney’s Tamarama Beach!

I chaired the Selfies and Diaries panel. Tom Sear discussed the ‘hyper-connective commemoration’ pf Anzac Day 2015, including Woolworths’ infamous ‘Fresh in their memories’  campaign/PR disaster, which was live for all of eight hours on 15 April this year. Maggie Patton then discussed the State Library of NSW’s exhibition of WWI diaries in ‘Life Interrupted.’

The final session was Q&A style, run by Dr Michelle Arrow, with a panel comprising Christopher Lee (screenwriter: Gallipoli), Andrew Anastasios (screenwriter: The Water Diviner), Lisa Scott (Producer: Anzac Girls), and Rachel Landers (Director) and Kate Aubusson (Presenter) for ABC’s Lest We Forget What? The panel canvassed many issues, but a theme which had emerged earlier in the day was taken up, which is the power of Anzac to engage Australians emotionally, something the writers and directors drew upon in their screen work. All the panelists expressed their essentially anti-war motivations. Lee channelled this into as realistic as possible a depiction of the violence and ugliness of war in his Gallipoli—a stark contrast with Weir’s version, which contains virtually no combat. I would do the panellists a disservice if I tried to sum up their discussions in a paragraph, so will leave their work to speak for itself. But as with the speakers I heard during the 2013 Presenting the Past Symposium on History and the Media, I was struck by the amount of research writers undertake, and the care with which they approach their subject.

I’ll end with a quote from Kate Aubusson, which epitomises for me why the study of history remains crucial, and has so much to offer society… “We don’t have the memory of mice, we can hold more than one story in our heads.” Anzac is complicated.

PS. a number of attendees tweeted about the day via the hashtag #anzachistories

History Week #Anzachistories

September 5 — 13 is  History Week in New South Wales, and this year’s theme is ‘War: Nationalism & Identity.’ I must admit to being a bit underwhelmed by the theme when I first heard it, as I’ve definitely suffered from Anzac fatigue in 2015, and rather enjoy exploring history through lenses other than war. On reflection however, I think the History Council’s line-up of events will stimulate discussion which goes deeper than simply drawing a straight line between the battlefield and nationhood, and I hope will draw in other stories around war and nationhood beyond the ‘baptism by fire’ narrative.  The Council explains on its website that the theme of the week “will focus on the history of nation building, nationalism and national identity as the products of both peaceful and violent processes.” Click here to go to see all the events planned for History Week.

Along with two fellow PhD students, I’ve been assisting Michelle Arrow in organising a public Symposium, sponsored by Macquarie University, entitled Public and Popular Histories of Anzac The programme focuses on what ordinary Australians think about Anzac, and what sorts of stories about Anzac circulate in popular and consumer culture. The speakers include Australian screenwriters, journalists, film/TV directors and producers, academics and writers and will discuss everything from films, TV shows, children’s books, literature and social media. The symposium is designed for the general public – it’s certainly not just for scholars and the media. This is a link to the symposium’s website and programme: Symposium Details

If you can make it to the State Library of NSW for all or some of the sessions, I encourage you to Book Now! If you can’t be there in person, and are a twitter-type, follow #anzachistories for a taste of what’s being discussed on the day.

Of course, you can always follow up the Symposium with the Annual History Lecture,  to be given by Professor Bruce Scates this year: Anzac Amnesia: How the Centenary Forgot the War I’ll be going if I can get some babysitting in place!

Nineteenth-Century Irish Migration and ‘Four Nations’ History


I’m having a great time trawling through the fournationshistory blog. I’ve reblogged this thought-provoking post: four nations/two islands.

Originally posted on Four Nations History Network:

Nineteenth-Century Irish Migration and ‘Four Nations’ History

Professor Don MacRaild (University of Ulster) investigates the challenges to four nations approaches presented by the history of Irish migration.

Traditionally, national differences or interregional varieties have been relatively minor considerations in the historiography of the Irish in Britain. The majority of works tended to be local or regional studies, which barely reflected on the comparative dimensions with other geographical units; otherwise, studies tended to be thematic and so ranged across the islands, but spent little time delving into explicit national cultural practical differences. Till the Seventies, social sciences methods dominated studies of the Irish in Britain (counting demographic data, for example, was a dominant vogue); otherwise, labour and social histories were influential, whereby the categories of study were class and ethnicity, rather than region and nation.

 For historians approaching the Irish experience from the political left, there were more similarities than differences between…

View original 1,235 more words

Irish archives at PRONI

I’ve just completed my initial archival research for my PhD, which involved a very long trip from Australia to Ireland. After a couple of days in the National Library of Ireland in Dublin, I ventured north to Belfast. My aim in this blogpost is to provide some information about carrying out research at the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland—PRONI for short.

IMG_3164PRONI is housed in a modern, light-filled building in the Titanic Quarter, a twenty-minute walk from City Hall in the centre of Belfast.  PRONI is a repository for archives from all over Ireland, and holds a diverse collection of official and private documents.

Obtaining a reader’s card was simple – no academic reference was required, just photo ID, and the card was produced on the spot. As is the norm with archives, researchers cannot take bags, coats/jackets or pens into the reading room—a plastic bag is provided to carry in your pencils, laptop, purse etc with you. The rest can be left in a free locker for the day (although you need to insert a £1 coin which is refunded when you finish with the locker).

Most visitors to PRONI seemed to be people researching their family history, and from what I observed, the staff were enormously helpful and patient with these visitors. I heard accents from America, Canada, Australia, England and New Zealand—PRONI clearly generates a fair amount of tourist revenue for Northern Ireland.

As an academic researcher spending more than just a couple of days at PRONI, I encountered some stumbling blocks, and having chatted with others doing similar work, I realised I wasn’t alone. Time was of the essence for my trip, I couldn’t be away from home for long so a leisurely trawl through the archives was out of the question. My aim was to locate and photograph as many potentially useful documents as possible, then catalogue and review them on my return home.  I hope that by writing about my experiences, I can help future researchers better prepare (logistically and financially) for research at PRONI. This is by no means a criticism of the archives or its staff, as I found them all to be friendly, welcoming and helpful. It was lovely to be greeted by name as I arrived for ‘work’ in the morning!

Bulk ordering documents: The PRONI catalogue is marvellously detailed. The online catalogue is good, but PRONI’s onsite catalogue (which cannot be accessed unless you are onsite) is far more detailed. This onsite catalogue breaks down each collection into individual items, for example, I wanted to review the collection of 18 letters exchanged between James Blair and his family in the 1770s. The collection is broken down into the 18 individual letters. As PRONI only permits readers to order 5 items at a time, this meant I was ordering 5 letters, then returning each as I finished reading or scanning, then ordering the next one—wasting precious time. The reading room staff eventually put me in touch with the manager of the document-ordering department, who gave me permission to make a ‘bulk order,’ so that I could order an entire collection. I couldn’t put that order in the system myself, this had to be done on my behalf by a member of staff. During my time at PRONI, some staff members would require me to fill out a form before placing a bulk order, others would call the head of the document-ordering department, and others just took my word for it that I had permission to do so. So while bulk ordering solved the problem of time-wasting for me, it was still a bureaucratic process.

My advice to future researchers is to contact PRONI ahead of your visit to request permission to place bulk orders, or at least to make contact so they can set you up with the necessary permissions as soon as possible.

Photographing documents: As I was in Belfast for a limited period, my aim was to photograph as many documents as possible, then catalogue and read them later. I had contacted PRONI to check I could photograph documents in the archive ahead of my visit, but I hadn’t understood the subtleties of the rules! They differ from any other archive I’ve ever visited…

Basically there are two options. Option 1 is to use your own camera. PRONI charges £10.50 per hour for camera use, and they require you to give advance notice in writing of exactly which documents you will be photographing. Your camera will be held behind the counter in the reading room until you begin using it, and then the clock will start running to calculate the price you need to pay. For example, if it takes you 10 minutes to do your photography, you will be charged £1.75.  Option 2 is to use PRONI’s scanner to photograph documents. You do not need to give notice of what you will be scanning, but it does cost 30p per image. Copy cards can be purchased at the reading room, and you need to bring your own USB stick to save the scanned images to. The scanner is easy to use and the scanned images are excellent quality, but this is an expensive exercise if you wish to take a lot of pictures, which I did!

If I’d grasped the complexities of PRONI’s photographing/copying rules, I would have incorporated copying costs into my funding request from my university. I did feel rather taken advantage of in this respect, particularly as other archives and institutions (the National Library of Ireland and Linen Hall Library in Belfast, to name two) permit researchers to photograph documents with smartphones. I happily scanned a number of documents in both these places at no cost.

Eating & Drinking in the Titanic Quarter: As I already mentioned, PRONI is located in the Titanic Quarter. I didn’t take long breaks for lunch but found a couple of interesting options if you want to get out. Alternatively, if you pack your own lunch & want to stay at the archives, there are comfortable tables and chairs just inside the building’s entrance where you can eat. There is also a cafe in the building, but frankly, there are better options a short walk away! Dock Cafe

Cast and Crew is a fairly new restaurant from well-known Belfast restauranteurs, 5 minutes walk from PRONI. It’s only open during the day, but they do great lunches (and presumably great breakfasts too). You can eat-in or take-away, and the coffee was great. The restaurant is so-named as it’s opposite the Titanic Studios where Game of Thrones is filmed. I wonder if I tag ‘game of thrones’ for this blogpost I’ll get a huge spike in readership :)

The Dock Cafe is a 2 minute walk from PRONI. It is a charity-run cafe which operates on an honesty-box system, so you pay however much (or little) you wish! They have excellent soup (after 12.30pm), tea, coffee, and the ubiquitous Irish scones & traybake offerings. They’re also more than happy for you to bring your own food to eat in the cafe.

All the best with researching at PRONI. Overall I had a great time discovering the wealth of archival material available, as well as exploring further afield in Belfast and County Antrim.

* The header image for this blogpost shows some of the glass frontage of the PRONI building, which features script from the archives. It also features some blue sky in Belfast!

Fractured Families: Life on the Margins in Colonial New South Wales

It was a great pleasure to attend the launch of Dr Tanya Evans’ latest book today at the beautiful Mitchell Library in Sydney, Fractured Families: Life on the Margins in Colonial New South Wales, published by UNSW Press. As Sydney City Historian Dr Lisa Murray said in her ‘launch’ speech, Fractured Families contributes not only to the history of Sydney and colonial New South Wales, but also to the history of the family, and to the practice of public history and family history.

I read Fractured Families as soon as it hit the shelves, and enjoyed it immensely.* The book evolved from Evans’ research on Australia’s first charity, the Benevolent Society, and her collaboration with family historians who have researched the lives of their ancestors in the Society’s archives in the Mitchell Library. Evans has uncovered the life stories of men and women at different ends of the social spectrum from the late 18th century to the turn of the 20th. As well as detailing some fascinating (and sad) life stories, Evans delves into the practice and methods of family history research, and asks questions about how and why these varied individuals are remembered in Australia today. The book is written in an accessible, conversational style and ably combines story-telling with academic commentary, and discussions about research methods.

There was much talk at the launch of the role of family historians—how they can make history more exciting and accessible, and, as Dr Evans noted in her speech, the value of collaboration between academic and family historians in revealing untold stories. (I’ve already benefited from the hard graft of generous family historians in my fledgling PhD research.) Fractured Families illustrates the role family historians can play in continuing the work of the original social historians: that is, to retrieve the marginalised of the past from obscurity. One of the speakers at the launch was Max Carrick, who described researching his ancestry in the Benevolent Society’s archives, and his collaboration with Evans.  His gratitude for her inclusion of his ancestor in the book was heartfelt.

I’ve rated Fractured Families 5 stars on Goodreads (for what that’s worth!) & highly recommend it to academics and everyday historians alike.

*Dr Evans taught me during my MRes at Macquarie Uni, and is the associate supervisor on my PhD. I’m a great admirer of her academic work, and share her interest in public, family and social history.

My favourite history blogs

As a novice PhD student, I spend an inordinate amount of time reading, but end most days frustrated that I haven’t read more. I have trouble settling down with fiction, which was one of my favourite pastimes pre-study. Instead, my spare reading time these days is taken up with reading blogposts—there are so, so many fantastic blogs out there written by academic historians, public historians, genealogists and other students of history. The WordPress Reader is one of the most-used apps on my phone (after twitter of course!) But the problem with an over-reliance on WordPress is that I have to remind myself to seek out blogs published on other platforms.  According to an astute observer* of digital media, it’s so easy to create and publish content in the digital age, but much harder to get noticed. I’ve recently discovered History Carnival, which does a great job of drawing history blogs out into the light. History Carnival is a monthly showcase of blog writing about history, hosted by a different blog each month to provide a variety of approaches and perspectives. In a similar vein, the University of Exeter’s Imperial and Global Forum’s weekly Top Picks in Imperial & Global History and the Junto’s The Week in Early American History provide links to blogposts, as well as writing from more traditional outlets.  The Two Nerdy History Girls also regularly post collections of links to their favourite blogposts, entitled the Breakfast Links. If any readers know of any other such aggregators, please do let me know.  These collections of links do other bloggers a great service by further sharing bloggers’ work.

Courtesy of Joanne Bailey’s excellent history blog, I’ve discovered a great app called Bundlr which has allowed me to take control of my messy collection of internet bookmarks. Click here to view the bundle I’ve created for my favourite history websites. (I was going to break the bundle down into categories of history blogs, but I think that’s called procrastination as I really should get on with my work!) I hope Bundlr is here to stay…it’s an intuitive platform, and very simple to use. I hope you find some new favourite sites and writers among mine. Let me know what you think!

*my husband

Update: Bundlr contacted me today (13 May) to say that my History Bloggers Bundle is featured on their Explore homepage today. I have no idea of the exposure that page has, really, but if it garners some new readers for any of the fabulous blogs I’ve bundled, I’m happy!

Google Street View, c.1872: Hill End

The cover photograph for my blog was taken by my husband at Hill End, a  designated ‘Historic Site’ in country New South Wales.  It’s a fascinating place, well-known to anyone who grew up in Sydney and traipsed out there on a school excursion.  The township sits high in the Central Tablelands, 300km northwest of Sydney. We visited Hill End for the second time a couple of years ago, and I wrote this review as an assessment for my Masters unit ‘Making Histories Public.’

Hill End Historic Site owes much to the Holtermann Collection—the photographs taken by Beaufoy Merlin and and his assistant Charles Bayliss, who were later employed by the successful gold miner Bernhardt Holtermann. Merlin and Bayliss’ work has been compared with Google’s Street View; they travelled through Victoria and New South Wales in the 1860-70s systematically photographing every building in towns “of any importance.”(1) In 1872, Hill End was reputedly NSW’s largest inland settlement, boasting a population of over 10,000.

The starting point for a visit to Hill End is the Museum & Visitor Centre, housed in what was once the Hospital. From the Museum, visitors can either follow the signposted walk into town down Hospital Lane, and along tree-lined Byers Avenue to the centre of the township, or make the short drive there. Parking is easiest outside the Royal Hotel at the top of Clarke Street, and the large map is a good starting point for the walk around town. Clarke Street was the commercial hub of gold rush Hill End and is the focus of the displays; few buildings remain on either side of the street, but there are plaques placed along its length, each with a photograph of the building which stood on that spot in 1872.  In some cases nothing remains, but in places the outline of foundation stones peek through the weeds, or occasionally an entire building remains (as in my cover shot), usually in a state of disrepair.  There’s very little interpretative labeling on the plaques, which simply contain the photograph and name of the establishment. The handful of plaques with more information are written in a light tone, such as this outside a hotel,

“It’s true…there really was an oyster salon here in 1872. Fresh (?) oysters were brought up from Sydney in lead lined cases…would you have been game to try them?”

While the photographs successfully bring to life the short boom period in Hill End’s past, the fact that the visitor experience to the town is so bound up with the photographs tends to highlight above all else the sense of loss associated with the boom and bust story. What of the sense of loss of the original Wiradjuri inhabitants? The over-riding narrative at the Site reflects the historiography of Hill End—that of the short-lived gold rush and the subsequent sense of loss when the rush moved elsewhere.(2) But Hill End’s history is more complicated than simply telling one story. The Site misses the opportunity to tell the other stories.

A walk around Hill End today is an evocative experience. The fact that the exhibition is the town means the visitor walks around in the outdoors, exposed to the elements just as the gold-rush miners were, with the soundtrack of buzzing flies and the occasional dog barking. The almost eery quiet of the town accentuates the sense of loss evident from juxtaposing photographs of a bustling, booming town with vacant blocks and derelict buildings.  Visitors are not roped off from the exhibit—free to tramp over foundations, or to pick up a rusty nail that once held two beams together.  It was this raw quality which attracted Australian post-war artists including Donald Friend and Russell Drysdale. Drysdale’s “The Cricketers” (1948) sets three figures against the backdrop of Hill End; it was a thrill to round a corner in the town and come across this most famous of brick walls!

A trip to Hill End is well worthwhile. It’s an immersive experience for adults and children alike, plus there’s the added bonus of a nearby river where it’s still possible to pan for (specks of) gold.

Russell Drysdale, ‘The cricketers’, 1948.  Private collection, © Estate of Russell Drysdale.

Russell Drysdale, ‘The cricketers’, 1948. Private collection, © Estate of Russell Drysdale.

(1) Alan Davies, “The Greatest Wonder of the World: Exhibition Guide”, State Library of New South Wales, 2013.

(2) Alan Mayne, Hill End: An Historic Australian Goldfields Landscape (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2003): 39-43.

For more information on Hill End or the Holtermann Collection:

Keast Burke, Gold and Silver: An Album of Hill End and Gulgong Photographs from the Holtermann Collection. Melbourne: William Heinemann Australia, 1973.



PhD: 5 weeks in

Inter-library loans also make a handy display stand for Easter decorations—courtesy of my daughter!

Inter-library loans also make a handy display stand for Easter decorations—courtesy of my daughter!

I’ve officially been a PhD student for five weeks now and frankly, I don’t feel as though I’ve got a lot to show for it! Sure, I have a lovely fresh blue Moleskine notebook, a new (v.big) computer screen for my home office, and a growing pile of books on my desk and on my kindle. I also have a spreadsheet with a detailed three-year plan (let’s see how that evolves over time!) and a Scrivener project entitled ‘PhD’. That reminds me, I did spend about an hour a day of Week 1 in an online Scrivener course.* Oh, and I sat through almost a day of ‘induction’ for newbie PhD students.  On a more inspiring note, I made it to a wonderful presentation by Prof Simon Newman from Glasgow about 18hC Jamaica (thanks Sydney Uni US Studies Centre for being so welcoming), and two excellent in-house Macquarie history seminars. And my first conference abstract has been accepted, so I’ll be presenting some of my MRes findings at the NewMac postgrad conference in July!** This in addition to supervision meetings, having my parents over to visit from the other side of Australia, then nursing a sick daughter at home for the past week…I guess I have been rather busy!  But given that my first goal was to nail down some primary sources for a chapter of my thesis—which I’ve not yet done—I don’t feel a great sense of achievement.

I’m starting on primary sources rather than a literature review because the work I did in my Masters of Research last year gave me a head-start on the Irish historiography. My PhD will investigate links between Ireland and the British Atlantic around the turn of the nineteenth century…so my first research efforts will build upon the stellar work of Nini Rodgers, as well as the fantastic resource that is the Legacies of British Slave-Ownership database. It’s a slow process though. More than once already I’ve wished I was back in our Islington flat, so I could just pop down to the British Library or Kew and have a nosy around. I’m sure that will be a recurrent thought, but perhaps (?) my distance from the archives will force me to be thorough and focused in my prep so that when I do get to the archives, I’ll know exactly what I’m looking for.

* I highly recommend this: Scrivener Courses: Gwen Hernandez

** NewMac 2015!

Archive envy


I’ve just finished Stephen Foster’s A Private Empire, which I learnt so much from—as an historian, a writer and a reader. A Private Empire charts five generations of the Macphersons of Blairgowrie, Perthshire, a family which could be described as landed gentry, except as the narrative traces their vicissitudes, we see that the Macphersons’ hold on this status was sometimes tenuous. Foster had access to the family archive begun in the eighteenth century by the current laird’s great-great-great-grandfather. This is family history, but writ large. The richness of the archive, combined with Foster’s wonderfully accessible prose, and his skilful distillation of historical context, have resulted in a family history which can tell a far wider story than ‘simply’ the family tree. As the blurb on the book says, A Private Empire “explores Britain’s imperial past through the eyes and experiences of a single family.”

With access to the family’s letters and diaries, as well as account books, legal documents and more, Foster takes the reader behind the scenes of the Macphersons’ imperial lives, so that as well as learning about the careers of the leading men of each generation, we gain an insight into how those men felt about their careers, and their families, and the imperial spaces they inhabited—in the West Indies, India and colonial Australia. It is this private sense of empire which so drew me to the book. We see, for example, the frustration of Allan Macpherson as he fails time and again to obtain the promotions he seeks within the East India Company in the 1770s; and the similar sense of frustration his grandson Allan endured as he tried to establish himself as a pastoralist in colonial New South Wales one hundred years later. Foster also managed to elucidate the lives of the women of the family, many of whom led extraordinary lives, criss-crossing the empire. My favourite narrative which winds its way through the book is that of William Macpherson’s first family—with the slave woman ‘Countess’—founded in Berbice, British Guiana at the dawn of the nineteenth century. I will say no more for fear of spoiling the story for future readers!

The book, published by Pier 9, is beautifully produced. It’s available on Kindle, but the contemporary paintings and photographs reproduced throughout make it worthwhile tracking down the hard-copy book itself. According to the judge’s report for the 2011 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards (for which the book was shortlisted), “underlying A Private Empire is substantial research – in Britain, Australia, India and America – and Foster weaves the primary source material through his narrative to masterly effect.” I couldn’t agree more.