In History 501, we have encountered the Annales school of history a few times.  The most notable example is the first book we read, The Historian’s Craft by Marc Bloch. With Lucien Febvre, Bloch founded the journal Annales d’histoire économique et sociale in 1929.  Among other things, the Annales school of thought associated with this journal promoted the importance of geography and its relation to history.  That is, the Annales school pioneered ideas of non-human causation in history.

Because of the Annalistes attention to geography and the physical world, many environmental historians recognize the Annales school as an important precursor to their field.  In his discussion of the influence of the Annalistes, J.R. McNeill states, “their [the Annales historians] general approach … proved inspirational for many who would become environmental historians.”[1] McNeill, however, also doubts the extent or importance of the Annalistes influence on environmental history.  He is not alone in this opinion.

In my historiographical essay, I plan to explore this historiographical debate through examination of the extent of the influence of the Annalistes on environmental history.  Of course, it is neither practical nor informative to look at the influence of the entire Annales school on the entire field of environmental history.  Because of this, I will specifically assess the effect of Fernand Braudel (1902-1985), a prominent Annales historian who developed the concept of longue durée.[2]

From my research thus far, it is clear that Braudel’s influences is acknowledged in some branches of environmental history and partially acknowledged in others; furthermore, some scholars reject Annales influence altogether. To assess Braudel’s influence, then, I will examine three regions of study within environmental history: North America, China, and Europe. I will sample foundational works in environmental history from each area, and examine the ways in which Braudelian influence is apparent.

Recently, Professor Rothman warned that “influence” is a rather slippery idea.  I agree, and thus I will approach it in two different ways.  First, many environmental historians have directly acknowledged Braudel’s influence, and so it is possible to examine how and where they see the effects of Braudel in their work. Included in this, I will look at historiographical essays that trace the origins of the field, to see where historians acknowledge Braudelian roots. Second, I will compare this alleged influence to the ways in which Braudel’s ideas are evident in environmental history texts, whether directly cited or not.

[1] J.R. McNeill, “Observations on the Nature and Culture of Environmental History,” History and Theory 42, no. 4 (2003), 14.

[2] A quick definition of longue durée is “long-term.”  It is a concept of time that examines historical change within a large time horizon.


As a new graduate student, I have so much spare time on my hands, I hardly know what to do with it. To remedy this problem, I have spent the last week attending as many extracurricular lectures as possible.[1] As I write this blog, I am in the process of completing a comparative essay within which I review three books and how they relate to one another.  I have chosen Marc Bloch’s The Historian’s Craft, J.R. McNeill’s Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World and Kenneth Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence: Europe, China, and the Making of the Modern World Economy. In it, I assess McNeill and Pomeranz on Bloch’s terms, and furthermore, examine how the authors mentioned see the role of the environment in history.

You may be asking what my review essay has to do with the extracurricular lecture habits that I mentioned in the beginning of this blog.  Because my appreciation for straightforward writing has recently soared, I will tell you. I find this blog helpful when I am writing a paper and my writing slows to a crawl.  It releases some of the anxiety I associate with writing graded work, and encourages a flow of ideas. Thus, to help remedy my temporary writer’s block, and to make note of the many fascinating things I learned in the past seven days, I was compelled to blog.

First, I attended Professor Golfo Alexopoulos’s lecture presented by the DC Russian History Workshop.   Professor Alexopoulos published her first book, Stalin’s Outcasts: Aliens, Citizens, and the Soviet State, 1926-1936 in 2003. The discussion that followed the presentation of her paper based on research for her forthcoming book on the Gulag was quite interesting.  Questions such as, does Professor Alexopoulos’s work on systematic violence in the Gulag warrant a return to questions of the Gulag as a “bureaucratic death machine” (in the words of Prof. David-Fox)? Or, could it be compared to the “oikos despotism” of slave systems in, say, Haiti? Of course, there was no answer to these questions, but they were incredibly thought provoking.  Also, within this discussion, I was provided with a short historiography of the Gulag – Nazi Death Camp comparison. As I’ve said before, the things I learn at these lectures are often unexpected, but endlessly fascinating.

The second lecture I attended was one that Prof. McNeill e-mailed about in September, and one about which I was quite excited.  It was called Twentieth-century French Historians and the Environment and the lecturer was Dr. Geneviève Massard-Guilbaud from the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris.   Her lecture traced the history of environmental history in France.  She discussed if and how environmental history was influenced by famous annalistes including Lucien Febvre, Fernand Braudel, Marc Bloch, and Le Roy Lauderie.  Professor Massard-Guilbaud also discussed Roger Dion and Paul Vidal de la Blanche, who were not associated with the journal Annalesbut significant to the discussion nonetheless.  Aside from the exploration of the origins of environmental history in France, an idea was presented in the discussion following the presentation that deserves repeating. Just because one “pays attention” to geography or ecology, noted Prof. Massard-Guilbaud, this does not make them an environmental historian.  Thus, environmental history depends on the role the environment plays in one’s historical writing, which, you may recall, is the idea I plan to explore in the essay mentioned above.  Perhaps then I can tease out a working definition for another essay I plan to write later in the semester. But that is a different topic for a different post.

The third and final lecture I attended was about cities in Interwar Japan by Professor Louise Young from the University of Wisconsin. Interwar Japan is completely outside of my area of interest, which I think made it all the more important to attend. If I picture a map of the world in my head, some historical blank spaces appear.  Although I know I cannot possibly fill them all in, it never hurts to try.  Also, one never knows where interesting comparisons and parallels may arise, for example the Gulag comparisons mentioned above. Following Prof. Young’s presentation was a discussion about local history movements, more generally. From this discussion it seemed that the Japanese movement was unrelated to European movements and one generation after. Another interesting point made by Professor Young was that she does not believe that one place can represent another.  Every city, for example, is unique and should not be taken as the “norm” as is so often done with Tokyo, within Japanese history.  Whether one is a historian of Japan or not, the idea of part representing a whole in historical writing is an important thing to consider.

In sum, all the presentations were quite different, and my summaries cannot possibly give them their due.  What I have hoped to convey is that the discussions they provoked crossed geographic, temporal, and disciplinary borders, and I think that is the main aim of the Global History Institute at Georgetown.  It demonstrates that the history department does not simply pay lip service to transnational study, but engages with it on many different levels.

If you are curious about where to find the schedule for these lectures, it is on the Georgetown History Department Website, here: http://history.georgetown.edu/GIGH/. If you are a grad student, this is especially useful for those evenings when you are beside yourself with boredom, and in need of something to do.[2] If I still haven’t convinced you, perhaps the following excited quote from an undergrad at Professor Massard-Guilbaud’s lecture will: “They have cookies!”

[1] That was sarcasm. Because I know of no way to convey that digitally, I have chosen to footnote it.  This may not be wise, as I know that those skimming my blog for its main point will skip this footnote. They will then perhaps base an entire argument on the false premise that History PhD students have a lot of time on their hands.  All of this could have been avoided if I did not refute my main text in a footnote. Or if I knew a sarcasm emoticon. But alas.

[2] See: Footnote 1.


Last Thursday evening, I attended a talk presented by Georgetown and Howard University. For those who were unable to attend or did not see the posters, James Walvin, Professor Emeritus at University of York, came to speak about his book The Zong: A Massacre, the Law and the End of Slavery.

I must admit that before attending the talk given on the subject, I had not heard of the Zong. I am not sure if this is common or uncommon, but it was situation I found myself in when I sat down in ICC 662.  I sensed that  it was an important event in the British collective memory, especially since the bicentennial of the abolition of slavery in 2007, but I am unsure if this is also the case for the US collective memory, or anywhere else for that matter.  Perhaps I had not heard of it because the period and subject matter has always been somewhat outside of my interest, but that is exactly why I enjoy attending extracurricular discussions.  I was able to learn something I may not have otherwise been exposed to, and now the strange word “Zong” will not seem so foreign whenever I come across it.

If you are, like I was, in a position where you are not aware of the events surrounding the Zong, I will sketch a rough outline. Please feel free to correct me if I am wrong. As I said, I’m not incredibly familiar with the topic.  From what I understand, the Zong was a slave ship that, at some point during its journey, ran out of adequate supplies to sustain all those on board.  Because of this, the crew decided to throw 132 Africans overboard.  When the ship returned to England, the crew claimed insurance (30 pounds per head) on those who had been murdered.  There was an ensuing court case about whether or not insurance should be given for murder. The case also brought into question whether these murders were or were not a crime.  To find out more, I suggest you read Walvin’s book!

The author, James Walvin, was an engaging speaker, and raised some important questions that he said influenced the way he composed his book.  First, he acknowledged that he was illustrating only one event in an otherwise massive and intricate history and asked whether or not one ship can be indicative of the broader history of the eighteenth century slave trade. This raises important questions for historians.  What is the significance of microcosmic studies? What is the significance of macrocosmic studies? How are they related? How narrow should the topic of an historian be when writing?  Walvin’s answer to these questions was that his book was a microcosmic study that shed light on the complex history of the slave trade, sort of like a lens through which to view the greater picture.  He stated the story was neither unique nor typical, but that it was emblematic.

Another issue he raised was that of evidence.  I found this particularly interesting as we have been discussing the historian’s use of evidence and facts in History 501.  In the case of the Zong, there is only one voice that speaks from history, and that is the voice of a man named Robert Stubbs, who Walvin stated was a known drunkard and liar.  It is he who testified in court, and so it is only his narrative that is extant.  With this in mind, how does one write the Zong’s history? What are the facts? Is it possible to write a history with unreliable testimony? Should one rely on generalizations, or focus solely on the data available? In Walvin’s case, he said that, to some extent, one must accept the truth of his statement, but not simply have a “beady focus on data.”  In other words, a balance of fact and inference. Perhaps Bloch would say that he knew how to correctly interrogate his sources.

Walvin also discussed his fascination with the moral aspects of his study.  How could these god-fearing men, asked Walvin, do such terrible things to fellow human beings? I think he explores this in his text, and I would be interested in the answers. In fact, so see an in depth exploration of all of the issues and questions raised above, as well as more information on the events surrounding the Zong, have a look at the book. (On sale at Amazon for $24.00 or around $18.00 if you have a Kindle, or $32.50 here: http://yalepress.yale.edu/book.asp?isbn=9780300125559.)

There are a few important things I’ve learned in my short time at Georgetown, and feel confident about passing along. One is that the Mug gives free hot water, so if you bring your own tea – or instant coffee if you can suffer it – and mug you don’t have to pay.  Another is that extracurricular guest lectures and discussions have been incredibly helpful in broadening my historical thinking, and I mark every one on my calendar when it enters my inbox. It is one thing to discuss history, it is another to be a practicing historian, and it is yet another to see an established and practicing historian speak about his or her methods, experiences, interests and theories. There is also a chance to question and meet the historians following the talk, as well as the opportunity to meet other faculty and students in the department (and other departments).

Thus, my recommendations are twofold: never pay for a cup of tea (because you’ll save money and reduce waste, too!) and attend as many of these extracurricular talks as possible. Even if you don’t know the subject being presented and words such as “Zong” look like a misprint, the experience is absolutely worthwhile.

If you have any thoughts or comments on the issues raised above or Walvin’s presentation, please don’t hesitate to comment!


The Myth of the Indian

For my class in U.S. foreign policy, I have recently been making my way through Michael H. Hunt’s Ideology and U.S. Foreign Policy. This week we read the third chapter of the book called “The Hierarchy of Race” which, for me, was incredibly fascinating.  In this chapter, Hunt speaks of the “Indians” (among other groups of people), and how perceptions of the idea of the Indian, as well as other conceptions of race, influenced foreign policy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

This is the first book we have read in the class that makes any significant mention of Aboriginal populations.  Perhaps it is because many of the books start their analysis in the late nineteenth century, at which point, as Hunt states, “the Indian ceased being a foreign problem and could be neglected as a domestic one” (55), or perhaps it is because we have not yet reached the newer scholarship concerning the topic.  With regard to the latter, I hope we see more of it soon and in terms of the former, it is clear that they are missing an integral part of the story.

As a historian, it is easy to forget that the effects of the decisions made in the periods that we study are still relevent to the present.  I find myself accidentally shifting between the role of the scholar to that of the judge, slamming my gavel as I highlight historical mistakes and scrawl the word “guilty” in my margins.  But being the first to throw stones, I forget my own complicity.  For if the harmful effects of history are perpetuated in the present and I remain ignorant, I should sooner sentence myself.

I was reminded of this recently as I was pulled out of Hunt’s book and placed squarely in the present. Namely, I read an article on teen suicide in a small Aboriginal community in Canada.   The effects of history, I was reminded, are still felt by the disproportionate number of youths who feel the need to take their own lives in the Northern Ontario First Nation, Pikangikum:


Of course, this is an isolated example with complex levels of causation, which I do not pretend to fully grasp, but it reminded me that what I read in class is not simply history.  It is often quite pertinent to the present.

Hunt states, in the context of the nineteenth century, “With the brutal abasement of the Indian in real life went a tendency to ennoble him in myth” (55).  That is, the Aboriginals became an abstraction, a tendency  that I fear is often repeated today.   The story of Pikangikum, as well as reading Hunt’s text, gave shape to this abstraction, and reminded me of the immediacy of history.

If you are interested in this topic, I highly recommend a visit to the National Museum of the American Indian in the National Mall. (That means it’s free!) It contains stories of peoples from across the entire continent, not just the U.S., as many people who identify as Indians also identify with different geographic boundaries and/or nations (there is a video exhibit on this). I went in late July, and I was afraid that the museum would be an attempt to “museum-ify” peoples and situations, treating them as static, historical phenomena.  To some extent, this is the case, however there is an absolutely fantastic gallery of contemporary Aboriginal art.  When I went, there was a beautiful piece concerning uranium mining, which you can imagine I was drawn to (for some reason or another…), as well as many other wonderful pieces to which no description will do any justice. If you happen to have any free time, you should have a look.

I hesitate to say that I am promoting “awareness” of the current circumstances facing many marginalized Aboriginal populations within North America, as that word seems impotent and lacking of any efficacy.  Rather, I am advocating the removal of the boundary between past and present so that we hopefully can end the perpetuation of the “myth” of which Hunt spoke.  We can remove our perception of the “ennobled Indian” from the history books and the museums so that we hear her voice from where it speaks: the present.

What are your opinions on the issue of Aboriginals in North America?  What are your opinions on boundaries between past and present?

Sources used:

Hunt, Michael H. Ideology and U.S. Foreign Policy. 2nd Edition. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.

National Museum of the American Indian:



I first heard the story about Pikangikum on a CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) Radio program called As It Happens on September 2, 2011.  They interviewed the coroner mentioned in the above article.  If you are at all interested in podcasts, I highly recommend CBC.  I especially like “As It Happens,”(http://www.cbc.ca/asithappens/) and only partly because it has some of the best puns I have ever heard. But there are many great shows on all sorts of topics.  It’s all on iTunes or here: http://www.cbc.ca/radio/.

Furthermore, there’s an interesting comment from a listener on the September 15th episode of As It Happens that concerns the racism she and her children face daily as visible Aboriginals.  It’s under the heading “Talkback”.


In The Historian’s Craft, Bloch defines history as the study of humans through time (27) but this definition is incomplete.   Rather, historians study humans in space through time.  In other words, just as Bloch warns us that historical phenomena can not be fully grasped without first understanding its chronological context (35), I believe that it is also not possible to fully understand historical phenomena outside of its physical context.

When he defines the areas with which a historian should concern his or herself, Bloch attempts to draw a stark line between humans and their physical context.  He gives an example to demonstrate this division, explaining that both historians and geologists study the Flemish Coast, yet their work is essentially different (23-25).   Although Bloch concedes “an area of overlap” between the two disciplines he also notes “a point of transition,” that occurs with “the appearance of the human element,” (25).  That is to say, as soon as humans become present in the narrative, it ceases to be geology and becomes history (and vice versa). If one considers that history is constantly taking place within its physical context, this separation is rather absurd.  There is not simply an area of overlap between the topography of an area and the people who inhabit it, but rather a constant interplay.  The Flemish coast is not a stage upon which the historical actors perform, but rather a dynamic part of their mutual story.  Can a geologist fully grasp the history of the rocks without recognizing human agency?  In the same way, an historian must recognize geological agency in his or her study, or else fail to grasp the entire historical story.

In his incomplete section on “Historical Causation,” Bloch again draws a line between the human and non-human aspects of causation. He notes that “anthropomorphism”(191) is pervasive when an historian is looking for the cause of historical phenomena. Because of this anthropomorphism, he states, “the most constant and general antecedents remain merely implicit,” (191).  As an example of this, Bloch argues, the existence of oxygen is not as important as the spark when understanding a fire (192). But let us say there were two sparks: one from lightning and one from a human match.  When they meet in one giant conflagration, where does the anthropocentric fire begin and where does the one started by lightning end?  Expanding on Bloch’s example, this demonstrates that the physical causation is not easily distinguished from human causation.

As Bloch himself states, albeit in a different context, it is not for the historian to make judgments, but rather to explain (140).  Perhaps, then, it is time to stop judging what is and is not implicit, but rather to regard the physical context as a further aid in explaining historical phenomena.  In sum, humans do not, according to Bloch, “chance to coincide”(23) with the world in which they live, but rather, it is a pervasive and ever-present aspect of the human experience.