At the beginning of May, I was privileged to be asked to speak at the Historical Association Conference in Manchester.  It was an excellent weekend with a wide range of lectures and continuing professional development opportunities. This is the fourth and final entry in a series of blog posts about the various lectures and workshops I attended.

After Professor Michael Wood’s outstanding keynote on Saturday morning, it was back to the real world of teaching for me.  The next session I attended was

Arthur Chapman – ‘Therefore’, ‘so’, ‘because’ and ‘so what’ – Strategies  for mastery of historical argument and analytical thinking at A-level.

Inference is the most important word for historians, according to Dr Arthur Chapman.  We work from one thing to another.  We should teach it explicitly, because it is one of the most difficult aspects of history learning for students.  Often historians make informal arguments by writing a narrative and don’t explicitly state their argument, so it can be difficult for students to identify those arguments.

Dr Chapman suggested that we should explicitly foreground logic in our teaching.  The strategy he suggested was to start with what you can see and then decide what you can work out; then to repeat the process until you reach the conclusion.  He called this ‘layers of inference’:

  1. Read the description and identify a claim
  2. What does this suggest?
  3. What don’t we know/what else do we need to find out?

We need to give students a framework – the tools to decode the text:

  • We need to explain what an argument is ie giving a conclusion (something to believe, feel or do) based on reasons – in other words, “do this and here is why”.  Argument = conclusion + at least one reason
  • Use + and therefore symbols to help students identify and articulate the arguments that lead to the conclusion

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The next step is to identify the assumptions made in the argument. An assumption is a claim that we take for granted and/or that we do not justify.  It is reasonable to assume things when making arguments, but it is also necessary for historians to question these assumptions.  Are the assumptions reasonable?

Then students can carry out the alternative conclusions test.  They ask what other conclusions you could reasonably come to based on the evidence in the text.  Are they equally plausible?  If so, the original argument is weak.

Finally, we can move on to getting them to use conflicting texts to construct their own argument not related to the argument in the text. This is when they use the facts in the text, separate from the historians use, to identify a different sort of argument.  The example he gave was to use two texts on Peterloo (one arguing it was a massacre and the other arguing that it was not) to decide what it was that the leaders of the socialist movement trying to achieve.  This has nothing, in itself, to do with what happened to the demonstrators and why, but the facts need to be extracted from the conflicting texts in order to use them elsewhere.

Obviously, this session was aimed at A-level, but it could be adapted for GCSE by giving the students the arguments and inferences rather than asking them to identify them, or by using much shorter texts.  I also think it could be adapted for undergraduate use, given that we assume that our students are able to do this when they arrive with us.  Many of the undergraduates I have taught have been reticent about criticising established scholars, and I think this might give them the tools to do so.

The final session of the morning was

Stephen Pierce – Two Women of Bauchi: flogging, scandal and judicial violence in colonial Nigeria

In May 1914, two women were seen leaving house of Fitzpatrick, the British assistant resident of Bauchi province in northern Nigeria. The women were spotted and caught by Fitzpatrick.  When they appeard in court, Fitzpatrick’s servants swore they didn’t know the women; they went to prison and were flogged.  In 1918, a Lagos newspaper claimed Fitzpatrick himself had insisted on the floggings, which were carried out naked.  This was bad publicity for the colonial office, and questions were raised in British parliament.  Fitzpatrick launched a libel action against the editor and publisher of the Lagos Telegraph and won.  Fitzpatrick was later drummed out of the colonial service in the wake of the flogging scandal and spent the rest of his life writing about other scandals in the colonial administration, such as homosexuality and drunkenness. There is no record of what happened to the women.

IMG_20170513_123534992Dr Pierce provided a lively if unsettling account of life, discipline and punishment in colonial Nigeria and how it influenced the independence movements that followed the Second World War.  Flogging was usually only done on women for adultery, so it was unusual that it had been applied to the two women of Bauchi.  Furthermore, there were different ways of carrying out flogging on men and women; adults and children; Christians and pagans.  These distinctions were considered important but problematic.

There is, after all, still outrage over the judicial violence against women over the past 100 years in Nigeria. The specific scandals of 100 years ago set up this genre but they were transformed through the 20th century and particularly by independence.  The Bauchi scandal had institutional and international consequences, but scandals such as these also triggered a set of political debates about northern Nigerian culture.

Colonial interest in Nigeria had concentrated on the the southern part of the country. IMG_20170513_123545608

The north was dominated by two pre-colonial empires; theocratic Muslim states, which were wealthy in local terms but useless to Britain.  In context of scramble for Africa these northern bits were deeded to Britain, but they had never taken advantage of them. At the turn of the 20th century , however, the British realised that if they didn’t occupy these areas they would be encroached on by the French and Germans.  Lugard  was the first high commissioner and he conquered these areas even though there was no economic incentive to do so and the colonial office didn’t want to pay for maintaining them.  Lugard was married to Flora Shaw, who wrote for The Times and she was an excellent publicist for him.  Lugard rule the country in a pragmatic way using a skeletal colonial administration while the retaining indigenous administration.  The Lugards wrote reams about how it was a brilliant, effective and humanitarian mode of government.  Most governance in northern Nigeria was therefore being handled by the indigenous population who were nevertheless answerable to British colonial government.  They saw themselves as protecting indigenous culture while bringing it forward into the modern age.

Rule basically continued among indigenous lines, which meant that it was different in different places.  There were native courts applying customary law.  The other system of courts was the provincial courts staffed by the British political officer called the residents.  They were helped by assistant residents, responsible for smaller districts.  These men often had no legal training whatsoever.  Flogging in provincial courts was restricted in theory, but more offences were punishable by flogging in the native courts.   Although they claimed not to like it much, they still overused it and misused it.  Many of the scandals came about because courts inflicted the penalty on people who had the skills to get the word out – most did not. The administration attempted to limit carefully who could be flogged in order to avoid scandal: they must not be Christian, fluent in English, or educated.

So although the outside world could no longer see them, floggings  still went on.  They were no longer carried out by British officials.  It was not, however, enough to blame floggings on Islamic law being less developed than British law, because Islamic penalties could no longer exceed the levels allowed by the British law.  There were anomalies where things weren’t a crime under British law but were under Islamic law, for example, drinking alcohol.

This reworking of the judicial system in 1933 also helped to explain away any floggings that people did hear about. The emphasis was on the primitive nature of Nigerian government and people.  The reforms nevertheless had far reaching consequences, especially after World War II.  The fact that British law limited Islamic law created tension, especially when capital offences under Islamic law were overturned by British law.  Independence movements were able to present themselves as protecting Islamic traditions against colonial encroachment.  The compromise had been arrived at on the basis of the flogging scandals but broke down after the Second World War as independence movements gained strength.


After a lovely lunch of salmon, rice and noodles, I was delighted to chair the session given by

Dr Sasha Handley and Dr Rachel Winchcombe – Sleep in Early Modern England

Sasha was one of my PhD supervisors and her latest book was nominated for the prestigious Wolfson History Prize.  She began the workshop by telling us that sleep is as much about culture as biology.  It provides us with a window on the lives of early modern people and intimate details of their lives.  There was a transformation in the practice of sleep over the 17th and 18th centuries.  Our need for sleep was seen to be the result of sin and human frailty.  Early modern minds beleived that during sleep we are at our most fragile and are most in need of God’s protection.  Likewise, the withdrawal of sleep was seen as a punishment by God.  Sleep was also conceptually associated with death and the bed was then the grave.


Sasha describe the medical understanding of sleep, based on the four humours. It was also one of the Six Non-Natural Things that were a preventative healthcare system. This list also included, for example, exercise, rest and keeping the emotions in order.  Sleep was the time during which Aristotle believed that food was digested.  He suggested that we should sleep on the right side first, then the left for the second part of the night, in order to aid digestion.  This was easy to achieve if one practiced segmented sleeping which she suggested was widespread. Medical advice also suggested a gentle downward slope from head to stomach to prevent regurgitation of food.  These same texts suggested that one must never sleep flat on the back as it flooded the brain with toxins and invited a visit from the incubus.

Medical advances in understanding of brain and nerves meant that there was an increased understanding of sleep, even though much was still based on theories on digestion.  It was the doctor Thomas Willis who suggested that the brain was more important than the stomach in sleep

Sasha pointed out that one of the most common pre-bedtime practices was prayer. It helped people to leave cares of day behind as well as to beg protection of the Lord. People kept prophylactic objects around the beds for defence, such as coral amulets.

For the second part of the workshop, Rachel talked about Sasha’s project with the National Trust at Little Moreton Hall.  The Sleep in Early Modern England project aims to disseminate Sahsa’s research to the wider public, relating the past to the present. The early modern period has been dubbed the golden age of sleep quality, so we can learn from them. The project also links to an educational programme and school resources.


The final session of the weekend gave me the priveledge of introducing the very lovely

Anindita Ghosh – Modernising Calcutta – technology, the spectacular and the unexpected.

Anindita was really supportive of my PhD research and was a helpful sounding board for some of my theoretical work.  I’d never heard her speak before the HA conference, but she was a really engaging speaker whose passion for her work shines through.  She recently presented a BBC Radio 4 documentary on the history of printing in India, and in 2016 she was interviewed by the Royal Historical Society for International Women’s Day.

She opened her talk for the HA by pointing out that Calcutta’s ability to show itself to the world was a result of the technology, which bombarded the people and changed their lives.  Her research explores how those people responded to change and what were frameworks they used to refract their experience?

Calcutta began as three villages, fortified by East India company. It was known as the city of palaces. Even in 1850, however, much of it was a city of huts. These were juxtaposed with great colonial buildings.  By early decades of the 20th century, Calcutta’s population was close to 1 million – it had exploded.  This sharpened the crisis of residences.

The earliest plans for improvement were set in motion by Lord Wellesley.  A lottery committee ran alongside the town improvement committee to help improve conditions along strictly European lines. They improved drainage and prohibited the open slaughter of cattle or public death rituals.  There were many spectacular improvements, such as mettled roads. Streets were planned on grids, oil lamps were put in and trams were provided.  Although these trams were great for workers, the roads were very narrow so they were bad for pedestrians.  Motor cars arrived 1896; electric trams  in 1902; motorised buses in 1922.  This gives us a sense of how rapidly the urban landscape was changing.

There was a sharp contrast between the Indian north of the city, which was slum like without roads, and the British south, where there were good streets and grand buildings mainly in the European style. Planners wanted to open up roads in the north for the flow of commercial traffic because not having proper streets was costing them money.


Songs provide rich insights into the way technology was perceived to be changing the city. It is in these texts that the sense of wonder comes across.  Images of steam trains and ferry steamers appeared on woodcuts and even sari borders. But the writings also illustrate some concerns and provide a critique of the developments.  One contemporary poet questioned how useful roads were if you don’t get two decent meals. He made a direct appeal to the benevolent mother figure – Queen Victoria – which was very common in  texts of the period.

The changes also disrupted Hindu codes.  The mighty Ganges river was shackled by irons with the construction of the pontoon bridge.  Futhermore, everyone has access to the same utilities in a city, whatever their caste.  A mechanised incinerator for death rituals didn’t go down well with Hindus and the government ultimately backed down.

Songs highlight the concerns of the lower orders of society.  Natural disasters and fevers, for example in the ‘cyclone songs’, were put down to the way technology had changed things.  They were seen as religious payback for the developments in the city. There was no limit to what was possible but it came at a cost, in the shape of women of easy virtue. There were few women in the city because the men travelled in during the week and went home at the weekend.  There were a series of sexual scandals and much discussion about them in the pulp press.  Serial killings of prostitutes happened in the early 20C, partly because these women turned their money into gold jewellery which they wore.  They were murdered to steal their jewellery.


All in all, it was a really stimulating, thought-provoking and friendly weekend. I went home thoroughly exhausted but full of ideas that I want to develop over the summer.