The header for this blog reflects my view of history. It reflects a world where people communicated and travelled beyond their national borders. I am attracted to the perspectives offered by ‘transnational history’ which challenges the traditional nationalist histories of the past. Historians who take a transnational view understand that people, ideas and goods travelled extensively beyond national borders. These transnational connections were already extensive by the time we noticed them in the late twentieth century and started talking about globalisation. People have always been curious about what lay beyond their home and sought to understand the ideas and exchange the goods of others.
The Silk Road is a good example of interaction between peoples. The European empires that emerged after the travels of Columbus are another obvious example albeit in the case of many indigenous peoples, an exchange forced upon them with devastating consequences. The lives of the people in the header of my blog were significantly affected by people who lived beyond Britain’s shores.
The first person that I would like you to meet is John Cornelius Woolward. You can only see the bottom part of this silhouette in the header (at the top above the ‘s’ and ‘t’ at the end of the blog title). In 1798 he fought in the Battle of the Nile at Aboukir Bay, a significant battle where Nelson routed the French fleet. John Cornelius suffered a significant hearing loss from this battle. He then became the harbourmaster at Ramsgate, England. He served in this position for 26 years. His interaction with the world outside Britain was through conflict. As far as I am aware, opportunities for him to interact with people from other parts of the world outside battle were very limited.
The next person was the wife of the son of John Cornelius, Matilda (nee Barrett). She married in 1845 on the island of Guernsey. Her husband worked for the coastguard and I assume had been transferred from Kent to Guernsey as part of the service’s policy of transferring their employees in a bid to prevent collusion with smugglers. Family history tends to concentrate on the male members of the family so I don’t have much information about Matilda, but I wonder what life was like for her on Guernsey. Did she live there prior to marriage or did she move there and have to start from scratch not knowing anyone? Was there a small community of naval/coastguard families on Guernsey who formed a supportive group for newcomers? She was living in Southampton when her husband died in 1886 and she died there 21 years later. She lived during a time when Britain was benefiting greatly from the wealth and power they gained from their colonies. Matilda Barrett would have been aware of the power of the British navy but may not have been so aware of the wealth that Britain was reaping from the empire. We do not know the contents of the book she is holding but during her lifetime there were many books and newspapers published in Britain that contained ideas that not only originated from other places in the empire but also beyond the empire.
To the right is a photo of the son of Matilda and grandson of John Cornelius – John Horatio. He was born on Guernsey in 1847. John Horatio’s birth certificate records his name as ‘Jean’, though to my knowledge he always used the English version of the name. I wonder what were the circumstances surrounding his name being registered in this way? Like his grandfather, he also joined the Navy, serving on a variety of ships between 1862 and 1896. His view of the world would have been one of British domination, probably with little personal interaction with people who were not British.
The last person is possibly the one with the most interesting story to tell, however we will probably never be able to learn more about her. Gladys married the son of John Horatio in 1908. I do not know her maiden name or anything about her background. She was living in Calcutta from the time of her marriage (was she living there before she married?) until she died. A feature of the colonial era that interests historians greatly is the interaction of people of different cultural backgrounds. By the time that Gladys was living in Calcutta the British had been in the city for a long time. I don’t know anything about where she lived in Calcutta, however we do know that the British tended to cluster in a particular area of Calcutta. Geographer, Sanjoy Chakravorty, has written an interesting paper in which he touches on the spatial practices in colonial Calcutta. The British availed themselves of cheap Indian labour for help in their homes. These Indian workers needed to live close to their employers due to their long working hours so the slums where they lived were threaded throughout the British sector of Calcutta (Chakravoty pp. 65-66). Gladys and her family would have interacted with Indians on a daily basis but it was an interaction mediated by the barriers imposed by the power and wealth of the British in comparison with most Indians.
As you have probably realised these people are part of my family. Their stories are typical of many British families at the time. Why did I use their photos in my header? It was sparked by a pragmatic consideration – I needed a unique image for my header and one that I did not need to seek copyright permission to use. This made me think of the old books and photos that I owned. But my choice of photos was not governed by practical issues alone. I wanted to convey an interconnected world and these people, like countless other people of their time, demonstrated through their lives the interconnectedness of the world in which they lived. David Lambert and Alan Lester have written an essay about this that is well worth reading. They explain how examining the lives of individuals can open our awareness of the myriad networks between people living far apart. These networks animated the British Empire during the nineteenth century (Lambert and Lester, ‘Introduction’, pp. 1-31). Traditionally history has confined its concerns to the occurrences within the nation. Transnational history demonstrates that such histories convey only part of the story. By ignoring influences from beyond national borders, these histories gave a distorted view of the life of the nation.
- ‘Battles: The Battle of the Nile at Aboukir Bay 1798’, Royal Navy website.
- Chakravorty, Sanjoy, ‘From Colonial City to Globalizing City? The Far-from-complete Spatial Transformation of Calcutta’, in Peter Marcuse and Ronald van Kempen, eds., Globalizing Cities: A New Spatial Order?, (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005), pp. 56-77.
- Lambert, David and Alan Lester, ‘Introduction’, in David Lambert and Alan Lester, eds., Colonial Lives Across the British Empire: Imperial Careering in the Long Nineteenth Century, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 1-31).
- Various family documents held personally.