Kristoff studied German studies, history, social sciences and educational science at the University of Cologne and at the Bergische University Wuppertal. He subsquently completed his PhD in Anglo-American history at the University of Cologne. His thesis dealt with manhood and modern antisemitism in the South of the United States between the 1860s and 1920s and was published in 2017 with Böhlau Verlag. His latest contribution to the study of the history of antisemitism is: ‘Oppression by Orgasm. Pornography and Antisemitism in Far-Right Discourses in the United States since the 1970s’, which is forthcoming in Studies in American Jewish Literature.
After completing his PhD, Kristoff was a research associate and lecturer at the University of Cologne and at Ruhr-University Bochum. From October 2017 until September 2018, he was a fellow at the Zvi Yavetz School of Historical Studies at Tel Aviv University, and he has also held various fellowships at the German Historical Institute in Washington, at Harvard University and at the German Historical Institute in London.
During his time at the CSMCH, Kristoff will be exploring the emergence of countercultures in western countries such as the United States, Great Britain and Western Germany in the 1960s and 1970s. Differing from other factions of the New Left, members of countercultural milieus tried to initiate a cultural revolution and create alternative spaces beyond the influence of capitalist sociation. They countered what they understood as the human alienation in capitalist consumer societies with a politics of the self that was supposed to establish solidarity among communities oriented towards sustainability, ‘naturalness’ and holism. In this context, body politics and body practices played a crucial role. In particular, Kristoff is interested in how counterculturists conceived of ‘politics of ecstasy’ as a means to liberate people from so-called capitalist alienation.
Kristoff will be presenting his work to the CSMCH seminar on 11 February and he is organising a conference entitled ‘Ecstatic Communitarization/Sociation: Ecstatic States of the Body and Social Group Cohesion from the 19th Century to the present’, which will take place on 26 March. The call for papers for the conference can be found here.
I hope you will join me in welcoming Kristoff to the CSMCH and to the university!
At the end of 2019, we hosted Martina Reiterová, a doctoral student from Charles University in Prague. In this farewell blog post, she tells us about what she got up to while she was here.
The main purpose of my two-month research stay in Edinburgh was to gather and study archival materials connected to the Scottish side of my research project on the organisation An Comunn Gaidhealach and its activities at the turn of 19th century.
I gained the most from two archival institutions – the National Library of Scotland (NLS) and the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Research Collections (CRC). The materials I focused on were mostly of an individual nature, especially correspondence. In particular, I have uncovered “behind the scenes” interpersonal relations that played a role in the formation of the public image of the Gaelic language movement at the time. Such insights are extremely valuable as they allow me to go beyond a discourse analysis of printed sources.
Probably the most interesting material I found were the minute books of An Comunn’s councils. Since these have been donated to the NLS very recently, almost nobody knows that the National Library is in possession of the archives of An Comunn. I was not aware of the existence of this material and its availability until very late. I discovered them only during the last week of my stay in Edinburgh.
For this reason – and the fact that I was not allowed to take pictures of the materials – I plan to come back to Edinburgh later this year for a week or more in order to finish the study of these documents.
As regards the sources stored in the CRC, there were two very interesting archival collections, both of which are potentially important for my research.
First, The Carmichael-Watson Collection, which consists of papers belonging to Alexander Carmichael, the most influential Scottish folklorist of the second half of 19th century, and to his family members. Secondly, the Collection of Professor Donald Mackinnon, which does not unfortunately contain personal archival material, only lecture notes, and religious texts and songs. Even though I expected these collections to be richer in personal documentation, they nevertheless contained significant sources for my research.
In addition to collecting my sources, I had great opportunities to talk about my topic with various scholars in the field, especially Rob Dunbar, the Chair of Celtic Languages, Literature, History and Antiquities in the School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures. Unfortunately, I did not manage to visit scholars at other the University of Glasgow and the University of St Andrews. I hope to make these connections in the near future, potentially at the 3rd World Congress of Scottish Literatures, held this year in Prague.
Overall, then, my stay in Edinburgh has brought an extra dimension to my dissertation project. Not only have I widened my primary source base, I also have a better understanding of the peculiarity of the Gaelic language movement in the broader European context of the second half of the 19th century. This, combined with the student life experience and excellent study facilities at Edinburgh, made this an extremely rewarding trip.
Martina Reiterová was a Visiting Research Postgraduate Student in the School of History, Classics and Archaeology and the CSMCH in October and November 2019. She is a third-year doctoral student at the Charles University in Prague. Martina has studied in Prague, Budapest and Paris. She is conducting research into the formation of collective representation at the turn of the 20th century in the Celtic countries under the influence of local revivalist movements. During her time at Edinburgh, she did archival work, particularly in the university special collections and the National Library of Scotland.
The CSMCH regularly hosts visiting postgraduate students. This year, we’re very pleased to be welcoming Martina Reiterová, who will be spending two months with us pursuing her research on Celtic revivalism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In this post, she tells us more about herself and her work.
Thank you for having me – I am very excited to be part of your Centre, even though it is only for two months.
I am starting my third year of a Ph.D. at Charles University, Prague, under the supervision of Jaroslav Ira, assistant professor at the Seminar of General and Comparative History. This is also where I completed my undergraduate studies. For my Master’s, I was awarded an Erasmus Mundus Scholarship to study at Eötvos Loránd University in Budapest and the EHESS in Paris.
This autumn, I am a Visiting Research Postgraduate Student in the School of History, Classics and Archaeology at Edinburgh, thanks to the CSMCH director, Emile Chabal, who kindly agreed to supervise me. My visit to Scotland is being funded by the Anglo Czech Educational Fund.
The main objective of my research is to explore the process of formation of collective representation at the turn of the 20th century in the Celtic countries under the influence of local revivalist movements. I compare the particular case studies of Breton, Irish, Scottish and Welsh revivalist groups and their representational strategies to reveal how forms of collective representation can be influenced.
This rather challenging project has brought me to Edinburgh as part of a series of study stays I am undertaking. At the end of last year, I did a research internship in the Centre de recherche bretonne et celtique at the Université de Bretagne Occidentale in Brest, and in May, I also spent a couple of weeks in Aberystwyth in Wales at the National Library, mostly for collecting my sources.
As for the Scottish side of my research project, I am focusing on An Comunn Gaidhealach (The Highland Association) and its activities. It was founded in 1891 with the objectives of cultivating, teaching and promoting Gaelic language, literature, music, and culture. It also launched the annual gathering we all know as Mód, a festival of Gaelic language and literature which offers awards for the best Gaelic performances and texts.
In this respect, Edinburgh is a perfect place for discovering historical sources, most of them in the National Library of Scotland. An substantial part of An Comunn‘s publications are already available online, which is why I will be focusing on the study of unpublished sources, mostly personal archival materials of An Comunn‘s representatives and members.
Edinburgh’s own Special Collections are also an amazing source of information for me and many other researchers. I am excited about having an opportunity to discuss my topic with experts in the field in the Celtic and Scottish studies department, and I hope to uncover additional sources for my research.
I also hope to learn more about the more general Scottish historical context, which is necessary for understanding An Comunn‘s activities. The wide range of Scottish history books in Edinburgh will help me immensely in this task.
Last but not least, I am thrilled to be allowed to participate in the different seminars at Edinburgh, all of which help me to widen my understanding of historical research, in a thematic as well as methodological perspective. This experience is very beneficial to my personal development too.
In short, I am grateful to spend this rather intensive and packed time in Edinburgh. I hope to be able to transmit some of the inspiration from here to Prague as well – and I would be happy to repay you for your hospitality, especially to those interested in Central European History and research opportunities in Prague. Please, do not hesitate to get in touch with me during my time in Edinburgh for a chat, or even afterwards at a distance!
This year’s CSMCH-IASH Fellow, Kristoff Kerl, is organising a conference in March 2020 as part of his fellowship. The call for papers is below – please circulate it widely!
Ecstatic Communitarization/Sociation: Ecstatic States of the Body and Social Group Cohesion from the 19th Century to the present
Having sex, using intoxicating substances, listening and dancing to music, making sports, driving fast, experiencing pain, getting into religious trance or committing acts of violence – all these body practices have been used by different groups of actors in different times, at varying places and in manifold and changing ways to create and experience ecstatic states of the body. Doing this, they aimed at the intensification of emotional and bodily experiences, at transcending the self or just at having a relaxing and joyful leisure time.
Furthermore, the practices of getting ecstatic and the experiences of ecstatic/intoxicated states were in manifold ways linked to processes of sociation and communitarisation and, thus, contributed to the shaping of social groups, milieus and societies. For instance, during the Third Reich, the Nazis used techniques and events to create states of mass ecstasy that aimed at the strengthening of political allegiance and the ‚Volksgemeinschaft;‘ during the 1960s and 1970s, Western counterculturists conceived of ecstatic states as liberating the body and the self from the shackles of western capitalist societies and they drew on manifold practices of getting ecstatic in their striving to create new forms of society; and in milieus such as the Burschenschaften (student fraternities) drinking alcohol has very often constituted an important tool of male bonding and of consolidating group cohesion.
However, it is not only the (common) experiencing of ecstatic states that constitutes an important factor of communitarisation/sociation, but also the (shared) opposition towards (specific) forms of intoxication and ecstasy. For instance, the antagonism towards sex, drugs and rock ‘n‘ roll was an important driving force in the context of the conservative turn that took place in the United States during the late 1960s and that contributed to the election of Richard Nixon.
It is the aim of the workshop to shed light on the relationship between ecstasy/intoxication, the users’ self and processes of sociation/communitarisation. Possible topics for papers presented at the workshop are, amongst others:
Ecstasy and social cohesion: How did common experiences of ecstasy/intoxication contribute to the shaping of social groups and societies? In which way did the shared antagonism towards certain kinds of ecstasy/intoxication constitute a factor in processes of strengthening the sense of belonging to a social group?
Ecstasy/intoxication and societal conditions: How did different social actors link ecstatic states of the body to social conditions, for instance, by conceiving of ecstasy/intoxication as a means that contributed to social change or the conservation of social conditions? How did different political regimes draw on ecstatic states to stabilize the social order and, thus, their political power?
Ecstasy and social categories such as class, race, gender, (dis-)ability or age: How did social categories such as class, race and gender shaped the experiences of ecstasy? How did the doing and experiencing of ecstasy/intoxication contribute to the stabilization or undermining of social and cultural stratifications and power relations?
Settings and spaces of ecstasy: Which role did certain spaces and their design play for the practices of getting ecstatic? For example, how did material and spatial arrangements influence the creation and shaping of mass ecstasies?
Objects and technologies: What kind of objects and technologies were used to create or to prevent certain states of (mass) ecstasy?
Please send proposals (max. one page) and a short biographical note to the organizer of the workshop, Kristoff Kerl (Kristoff-Kerl@gmx.de). Deadline for applications is December 15, 2019. The workshop will take place at the University of Edinburgh on March 26, 2020.
At the end of the last academic year, the School of History, Classics and Archaeology appointed Kate Ballantyne to a one-year Career Development Fellowship in Contemporary History. Alongside her research and teaching, one of Kate’s main responsibilities is to help with the organisation and coordination of CSMCH activities. So we could get to know her better, we asked her to write a short blog post about herself…
I’m thrilled to be joining the Centre for the Study of Modern and Contemporary History as the Career Development Fellow this year! I also hold a research fellowship with the David Bruce Centre for American Studies at Keele University, and before coming to Edinburgh, I was a teaching fellow at the University of Birmingham during the 2018-19 academic year. I completed PhD and MPhil degrees at the University of Cambridge, and my undergraduate studies in History and Southern Studies at the University of South Carolina.
I came by my love of history naturally. My hometown is Oak Ridge, Tennessee, most famous as a ‘secret city’ created in 1942 as part of the Manhattan Project. This programme consisted of three sites across the country which produced the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan.
During World War II, Oak Ridge was a secret military facility complete with guard posts and checkpoints, where people from across the country came to work. They knew they were participating in a secret part of the American war effort, but didn’t know what this entailed. After the war, the city was run by the Atomic Energy Commission, before becoming incorporated as its own city in 1959. Since then, the city has retained a national reputation for scientific research with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.
This complicated history, I’ve come to find through my work, has shaped me as a person and as a historian. As a third generation Oak Ridger, history was everywhere from family stories to laboratory sirens that would test across the city every week. The city itself, set out by the Army Corps of Engineers, was laid out East to West with the streets running alphabetically in that direction. And many local restaurants that have popped up in the last couple of decades pay homage to the atomic history with menu items named after the lab or the bombs, such as the ‘Fat Man’ burger at one longstanding drugstore or the ‘atomic’ hot sauce at a Chinese diner (here again is that complicated history).
Moving to South Carolina as an undergrad, I discovered the Institute for Southern Studies almost by accident, and became fascinated by studying southern culture, and most importantly, I would argue, what it means to identify as a southerner. Moving away from the South and teaching American history, much like William Faulkner’s character Quentin Compson, I’ve been forced to reckon with much of my regional history and culture.
What does it mean to love southern food and music while also acknowledging the complicated past of slavery, racial segregation, and disfranchisement? Personally, I don’t know that there is a clear answer to this. I can say, however, that despite my continually diminishing southern accent, I will always have a soft spot in my heart for Appalachian apple stack cakes, and proper biscuits and milk gravy. On the other hand, I don’t much care for Civil War battlefields, am vehemently against Confederate war memorials, and dislike most depictions of southerners in popular culture (the films Steel Magnolias and Oh Brother Where Art Thou? are notable exceptions).
My research interests are, broadly, social movements and student activism in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. While my doctoral research and first manuscript focuses on Tennessee and its history of student activism from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s, my next project analyses conceptions of free speech and the role these have had in campus-based protests across the U.S. since the 1960s. Both projects probe issues concerning regionality, activism, and race.
I also lean on oral history in my research. I’ve conducted oral histories since my undergraduate dissertation research, and find the practice incredibly rewarding and important to studies which centre on individual experience. I look forward to discussing these areas of research with centre members and seminar attendees this coming year!
NB. Kate will be presenting some of her work to the Centre seminar in May 2020.
As part of their visiting fellowships at the CSMCH, Ljubica Spaskovska and Claudia Stern each had to organise an academic and public engagement event. With a bit of imagination, however, they were able to combine their expertise and put together a workshop and film screening. In this blog, they tell us a little more about what happened on the day.
On 27 May 2019, the CSMCH hosted a workshop on the Histories of Solidarity, Youth and Transnationalism in the 20th Century. There were two panels. The first focused on ‘Youth, Generation and Activism in the Cold War’ and featured papers by Nikolaos Papadogiannis (Bangor University) and Ljubica Spaskovska (University of Exeter).
Nikos’ presentation, entitled “Internationalism, Holocaust Memories and Organised Youth Mobility from West Germany to Israel during the Cold War”, concentrated on the “special relationship” between West Germany and Israel and interrogated internationalism’s characterisation as a solely benevolent phenomenon. Ljubica’s paper on “Non-Aligned Punk – Youth Cultures and Politics Between the Blocs” presented part of her first monograph on “the last Yugoslav generation” and used the citizenship lens to analyse youth negotiation and contestation, as well as the framing of transgressive cultural and political acts in the context of the 1980s.
The second panel, ‘Revolutionary (Inter)nationalism in the ‘Short’ 20th Century’, featured presentations by Emile Chabal (Edinburgh) and Harini Amarasurya (Open University). Emile’s paper was entitled “Revolutionary Dreams: Eric Hobsbawm and Global Communism in the Late 1930s”. It uncovered Hobsbawm’s transnational engagement and early political socialisation as a young student in interwar Europe, in particular through his involvement with the Rassemblement Mondial des Etudiants (The World Student Association for Peace, Freedom and Culture), underlining the importance of the little explored aspect of politics and sociability. Harini’s presentation was entitled “From respectable to violent revolutionaries: changing narratives of student activists in Sri Lanka”. She looked at the reasons for and representations of radical leftist student violence, in particular the Sri Lankan student insurrection in 1971, demonstrating that student politics can sometimes be hierarchical, gendered and authoritarian.
The workshop on transnational solidarities ended with the screening of the documentary Nae Pasaran!, directed by Felipe Bustos. The screening was followed by a Q&A moderated by Fraser Raeburn, with the participation of Martín Farias and Claudia Stern, that centred on the Chilean recent history, the political background of Salvador Allende’s government, the Coup on September 11, 1973, and the subsequent dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.
The story of solidarity of Scottish union workers from the Rolls Royce company who refused to repair the engines of the Hawker Hunters jets used by the military junta in Chile is unravelled throughout the documentary. With a variety of testimonies and unprecedented colour images from the period, the documentary brings together different experiences and exposes the scope of the act of solidarity of the Scottish trade union organisation at the East Kilbride engine factory, with both the Chileans in the country and in the communities in exile during 1970s.
Bob Fulton, Robert Sommerville, John Keenan and the rest of the workers’ refusal to work on arms for Chile is a story of hope that reflects the sense of unity, courage and morality of the factory workers, in a period of trade union strength in the UK. The documentary presents an unknown episode of solidarity toward Chile, that from a transnational viewpoint can be seen as a Cold War nuance. It also shows different faces of Chilean society and their political positions, their ambiguities and their divergent versions of memory. The meaning of democracy, power and the sense of solidarity interconnects with the idea of the collective, where past and present are in dialogue. The director of the documentary sends an inspiring message of global solidarity based on his own history.
This blog post was written jointly by our CMSCH-IASH Visting Fellows for 2018-9, Ljubica Spaskovska and Claudia Stern. You can find out more about their research here.
Ljubica will be in residence from 1 March to 31 May. During this time, she will be working on a project entitled ‘Comrades, Guerillas, Diplomats: Yugoslavia, Non-Alignment and the Quest for a New International Order, 1930-1990’ which will form part of her second monograph under consideration with Cambridge University Press. After the fellowship, she will return to Exeter, where she will be taking up a permanent Lectureship in Post-1900 European History. Her mentor at Edinburgh will be Emile Chabal.
Our second fellow is Claudia Stern, who has just finished a Minerva Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute for Latin American Studies at Freie Universität Berlin. Originally from Chile, Dr. Stern completed her BA studies at Universidad Diego Portales in Social Communication and Advertising, and also holds a diploma in Cultural Administration from Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. She then went to Tel Aviv University for an MA in Cultural Studies and a PhD in History. She was subsequently a postdoc at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Research (IPAZ) at Granada University in 2016.
Claudia will also be in residence from 1 March to 31 May, during which time she will be working on the relationship between the experience of the Chilean middle class, gendered identities, and trauma from an economic, urban and political viewpoint. While in residence, she will pursue these interests by studying class identity and its social territorialization in Chile, as well as the ways in which urban icons impacted and shaped individual and national identities. She will also explain how public spaces played a key role as rupture markers in reshaping identities after the end of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship. Her aim is to explain the transformation of Chilean middle classes identities through urban transformation as a class indicator. Her mentor at Edinburgh will be Jake Blanc.
As you can imagine, we are very excited to have two such talented scholars working with us at the CSMCH. I am sure you will join me in welcoming them to our community – and I would urge you to come along to listen to their respective presentations to the CSMCH seminar in late April and early May.
NB. For those interested in applying for next year’s CSMCH-IASH Fellowship scheme, the closing date is 30 April 2019. The application website has full details.
The CSMCH was delighted to sponsor a one-day symposium at the Edinburgh Confucius Institute on the theme of ‘Memory and Memorialisation in the People’s Republic of China’. The conference was organised by Francesca Young Kaufman (Manchester), who also wrote this report for the blog.
The symposium was called in response to the on-going challenges faced by scholars of recent Chinese history, working in a context of state-management of national historical discourses. An intention of the conference was to gather academics working on the themes of memory and memorialisation in relation to the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and to explore commonalities, connections, and new approaches. Out of over twenty submitted abstracts, nine were selected for the event, alongside keynote talks by two leading UK scholars in the field: Margaret Hillenbrand (Oxford), and Marjorie Dryburgh (Sheffield).
Hillenbrand launched the symposium with a challenging exploration of the use of the Nanjing Massacre in popular Chinese history and education. Analysing the saturation of Chinese culture with imagery of violent atrocity, she proposed that the utilisation of Nanjing Massacre memory by the state had resulted in a de-historicising of the event, positioning it as a symbol and marker rather than an historical moment in need of analysis and reassessment. Her talk was well-received by a combined audience from the Schools of History, Classics and Archaeology, and the Department of Asian Studies, as well as members of the public, and created a lively debate.
The following day, panellists convened in the beautiful settings of Abden House, the home of the Edinburgh Confucius Institute. Panels were focused around the themes of ‘Contested Pasts and Practices’, ‘Material Culture and the Visual Archive’, and ‘Using the Past to Serve the Present’, and included papers on cinema, museums, cityscapes, funeral practices, and foreign policy. Work-in-progress papers were pre-submitted to the panel chairs, Margaret Hillenbrand, Julian Ward (Edinburgh), and John Lee (Manchester), and panellists presented short summaries of their research before engaging in a wider discussion around the themes and approaches raised in their work. Panel chairs also reflected back to the panellists on their longer, written submissions, and offered suggestions for the future development of their projects.
Concluding the symposium, Dryburgh shared findings from her intriguing research into memory of the Manchukuo era, and offered contextualising observations on the challenges and opportunities for memory studies research in contemporary China. A final roundtable was chaired by Francesca Young Kaufman. The closing discussion raised key themes that had emerged throughout the day, as well as the possibility of future avenues for research and collaboration. Conference participants observed that research into memory and memorialistion, and the uses of history in the PRC, was an underexplored area, and that the symposium had highlighted an important gap in existing academic networks. The event concluded with an agreement to pursue applications for a network grant and to convene further events on these themes.
If you would like to be involved with developing future projects on history, memory, and memorialistion in modern China, or the wider East Asian area, please contact Francesca Young Kaufman (email@example.com).
Francesca Young Kaufman is a Lecturer in East Asian History at the University of Manchester. Her PhD was entitled ‘Contested Representation: an historical reassessment of the work of art filmmakers in the PRC, 1989-2001’. She is an affiliated staff member of the CSMCH.
The CSMCH was delighted to support a recent conference on the history of fertility control. Cassia Roth, who was one of the organisers, sends this report on the fascinating discussions that took place during the conference.
On 23-24 May 2018, the School of History, Classics and Archaeology at Edinburgh hosted an international conference titled “Intimate Politics: Fertility Control in a Global Historical Perspective”. The two-day event included speakers from the U.S., Canada, the U.K., the European Union, and Turkey, who discussed topics ranging from forced abortion in early twentieth-century China to child exposure in Ancient Rome.
Conference organizers Cassia Roth and Diana Paton conceived of the event as way of historicising women’s fertility control practices. Across the globe, women have always controlled their fertility through intimate efforts ultimately tied to larger political processes and gendered power dynamics. Women’s biological reproductive capabilities have been contested sites of power struggles, shaping the formation, rule, and dissolution of nation-states and political regimes throughout history.
From the concept of partus sequitur ventrum, in which slavery was passed on through the mother’s womb, to settler colonial projects that supported ‘desirable’ reproduction while restricting ‘undesirable’ migration in Australia and the United States, to abortion as the most common form of birth control in some communist regimes, the politics of the state have played out on the bodies of women. It is not surprising, then, that current debates over nationhood, globalization, and inequality continue to be mapped onto women’s bodies.
Yet the intersection of larger political, economic, and social processes with women’s intimate and embodied experience of fertility control remains understudied in the historical literature. This conference placed the intimate experience of fertility control at the heart of political and social approaches towards women’s bodies.
“Intimate Politics” explored these issues from the perspective of multiple time periods, geographic locations, actors, and methods. Some of those presenting at the conference explored how women’s individual or social practices of fertility control, including contraception, abortion, and infanticide, intersected with larger political, economic, and cultural trends. Others problematised the idea of “control” and “agency” in the history of reproduction.
What did it mean to “control one’s fertility” in different historical periods and geographical regions? How did historical actors understand, define, and practice what we now call fertility control? How can we expand conventional definitions of fertility control to interrogate ideas of infertility, menstruation, and heteronormativity?
Contributors also highlighted how race, ethnicity, and class intersect with gender to shape if, and how, women and men approached fertility control.
The keynote speaker, Professor Laura Briggs (University of Massachusetts, Amherst) discussed her new book How all Politics are Reproductive Politics, which looks at the gendered and reproductive nature of issues as disparate as the foreclosure crisis during the Great Recession to social service reform.
Cassia Roth (@drcassiaroth) is a historian of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Latin America with a focus on Brazil. In particular, she examines how gender, race, medicine, and the law intersected in the lives of Brazilian women in key moments of political and economic transition. She is a CSMCH affiliated staff member until August 2018, when she takes up a new position at the University of Georgia.
In the final instalment of her three-part series on Indian colonial soldiers during the First World War, our Erasmus+ trainee Birgit Ampe discusses Mulk Raj Anand’s novel ‘Across the Black Waters’ and the reactions of Indian soldiers to what they saw in Europe.
It is often suggested that the outcome of the First World War was decided not so much by the main powers, but by their colonies. This is especially the case for Britain and India. The latter’s contribution to the conflict was one of the main factors that helped to secure British victory. It comes as no surprise, then, that British propaganda praised the achievements of the Indian troops in France and Flanders.
But what was not mentioned was how these Indian men had to leave their homes and families in order to get to the front. Many of them had hardly ever crossed the boundaries of their village, let alone travelled across the ocean. So how did they react when they first set foot on the shores of France and came into contact with Europe and its inhabitants?
One particular source that deals with this question is the First World War novel Across the Black Waters (1939) by Indian writer Mulk Raj Anand. The story follows Lalu as he arrives in France and is sent to fight at the front in Flanders. Throughout the novel, the reader is presented with Lalu’s opinions as he explores this strange new land.
One could argue that Lalu’s narrative is a fictional account and thus not a faithful representation of reality. But, as I already suggested in the second blog post, the novel stays true to the sentiments and ideas expressed in letters written by actual Indian soldiers.
The main protagonist of the novel, Lalu, was fortunate in his upbringing since he was able to attend the Bishop Cotton School in India and could therefore more or less understand English. His time at the school also made him familiar with the ideas of the West, and tales of its wealth and splendour. It is obvious that Lalu is already biased beforehand. So when the soldiers are given some spare time to explore the city before they go to the trenches, Lalu feels the need to justify everything he sees: “He had aspired to this Europe as to some heaven, and sought to justify everything in Blighty [informal term for Britain]. He was inclined to forget the good things at home” (44). Lalu goes on to praise the wealth of the city, the kindness of the people and the equality that seems to exist between men and women and the different social classes.
It immediately strikes the reader that Lalu’s praise mimics that of real sepoys, who expressed similar opinions in their letters. However, it should be pointed out that these sepoys were not educated in the same manner that Lalu was. Mulk Raj Anand might have created a semi-educated protagonist in order to allow for a more complex character whose opinions can change towards the end of the novel, as we will see later on. But more importantly, by being in-between, Lalu acts as a bridge between the Indians and the Europeans.
The other characters in the novel resemble the sepoys perhaps more. They are uneducated and do not share Lalu’s need for justification. Nevertheless, they are intrigued by the beauty and wealth of France. They are very curious and marvel at the different customs of the French. But what they are most surprised about is the kindness of the people. The attitude of the French people stands in sharp contrast to that of the British who look upon the Indians as inferior. The French on the other hand are “kind and polite” (16), and treat the sepoys as equals. Their friendliness makes the Indians feel that “they had grown to the dignity of human beings and [makes them forget] the way in which they had always been treated as so much cattle in India” (37-38).
The sepoys especially enjoy the kindness bestowed upon them by the women. The outgoing character of the French women is new to the Indians and it excites them. This attraction is mostly sexual, as is illustrated by the men’s eagerness to visit a brothel. For Lalu, however, women are not just sexual beings. He is physically attracted to them and he enjoys looking at the French girls who are in his opinion more beautiful than the “flabby and tired” (19) women of India. But later on in the novel, when he meets a French farmer and his family, Lalu has more complex feelings. The wife of the farmer acts as his mother and so there is no sexual attraction. He is, however, attracted to the farmer’s daughter. But as a reader we notice that the feelings are more than merely sexual.
This mixture of feelings is also present in the sepoys’ letters. Many Indian men wrote to their families that the women they met were like mothers and sisters to them. Only a few letters revealed a sexual attraction towards the women. Perhaps the men did not want their families to know about these feelings. We can fairly assume that men felt more sexually attracted to the women than they let on in their letters. Mulk Raj Anand certainly picked up on this point and incorporated it into his novel.
Despite the kindness they receive from the women and the French people in general, the sepoys were plagued by a sense of inferiority. Colonisation had a negative effect on the colonised and it influenced the way they think and behave. Indians often felt inferior and embarrassed in the face of the coloniser.
These feelings are also present in the novel, when the sepoys feel the need to salute every white man, even a peasant. The narrator concludes that “[t]his was the most tragic element in the position of the Indian soldiers: they were face to face with death in the unknown, but they could not stare at one of the myriad faces of their French and English comrades with the impunity of human beings” (227).
Interestingly, these feelings of inferiority are hardly ever described by real sepoys in their letters. Did they hold back their opinions because they knew their letters would be read? Or did they want to prove their loyalty to the Empire by not mentioning how they truly felt?
In the novel, the difference the sepoys experienced between themselves and the French and English soldiers illustrates how they identified with their homeland and how India never left their minds. This is especially the case when they explore the city. The sepoys comment on the small rivers and are eager to visit a French farm.
I already mentioned in the previous blog post how some Indians compared certain aspects of the war to elements of rural labour, not least because most Indian soldiers were peasants before. But the novel suggests that they were also genuinely interested in agriculture. For example, when some Indians are talking to a French soldier with Lalu as an interpreter, they ask him: “Did you ask whether he owned land, whether they plough the land, like us, with oxen? Whether they use a plough to break the soil, and the scythe and sickle to cut the crop, and flail? And how they thresh? That is what we want to know” (82).
The characters in the novel generally cast India in a positive light, but Lalu, who is somewhat biased, disapproves of the outdated methods of the Indians, arguing that that “[i]n every land, even in our own country, it could be like this […] [b]ut our elders say, ‘It is not the custom to do this, it is not the custom to do that.’ Fools!” (50).
This idea was expressed by real sepoys in their letters as well. They did not use such strong language, but it is clear that they admired the West and believed that India had a long way to go before it could ever reach the same economic standard.
Towards the end of the novel, however, Lalu is forced to change his opinion of the West. The difficult life in the trenches and the meaninglessness of the war begin to take their toll on Lalu’s naive mind, and he eventually “reproached himself for his predilection for the fashionable life. … So ashamed was he of thinking of the enthusiasm which he had felt as he started out on this journey” (179).
This brief exposition illustrates the close connection between Across the Black Waters and the corpus of letters written by actual Indian soldiers. Historical sources, such as these letters, can provide valuable insight into the lives of the Indian World War I soldiers, but the element of censorship must always be taken into account when examining them. In this respect, it can be useful to look at literary sources too, since these often highlight other aspects of soldiers’ experiences and reveal new perspectives on the historical past.
Birgit Ampe is an Erasmus+ trainee and visiting postgraduate student at the CSMCH. She completed her Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in English Literature from the University of Ghent in Belgium. She intends to start a second Masters degree in library studies at the University of Brussels in September 2018.