In the News: Ben Carson, ‘Immigrants’, and Slavery in America

On March 6, 2017, newly-sworn-in Housing and Urban Development secretary, Ben Carson, made a speech to his agency’s employees that confused enslaved Africans for immigrants seeking a better life in America. Word of this mix-up quickly gathered momentum in news outlets, on social media, and the late show circuit.

Regular readers of our blog know that we rarely get political, but in this case I wanted to contextualise Carson’s remarks and hopefully shed some light on why his assertion immediately received such strong criticism. As such, I am going to repeat his remarks here and highlight a few key areas that deserve correction and context.

brookes slave ship

Copy of the Brookes slave ship (engraving)

 “There were other immigrants who came in the bottom of slave ships, who worked even longer, even harder, for less, but they too had a dream that one day their sons, daughters, grandsons, granddaughters, great grandsons, great granddaughters might pursue prosperity and happiness in this land.” – Ben Carson, HUD Secretary, 6 March 2017

First up is Carson’s use of the term ‘immigrants’. Merriam-Webster defines an immigrant as ‘a person who comes to a country to take up permanent residence’. We immediately have a problem, then, with considering enslaved Africans to be immigrants because an immigrant must be a person, and Africans  ‘who came in the bottom of slave ships’ were property, not people. They did not have the rights or legal protections that, if we refer back to Merriam-Webster, are central to being considered a person in legal terms.

Second, but still on the subject of being an immigrant, immigrants typically move country for a reason. This may be to pursue a new job or the opportunity to build a better life with more land, a better climate, etc., or to be with family who have already immigrated. Immigrants have a choice. This is also a key difference between immigrants and refugees. Refugees arrive in a new country fleeing from danger. Immigrants may be looking for a better life, but they are moving of their own accord and can migrate further or return home. Refugees typically can not return home. Slaves have no legal choices regarding where they go, what they do, etc., because they are owned by others who dictate for them.*

*Not that enslaved individuals didn’t assert their power, make demands, flee their situation, etc. Enslaved persons were not legally considered to be people, but they were still human beings with agency, intelligence, personal beliefs, and relationships.

Next, we come to the phrase ‘who worked even longer, even harder, for less’. Slaves were unpaid. Had they been paid workers with contracts and/or the ability to legally leave their positions, they would not have been slaves. They would have been employees. So technically, yes, they were paid less than other ‘workers’ because they weren’t paid at all.

Some might say, ‘oh, they were paid in kind’, referring to shelter, clothing, food, and care offered to some enslaved individuals at some times in some places. Labouring on a plantation was not a choice for an enslaved person. It wasn’t freely entered into. Carson’s decision to describe enslaved Africans as having worked longer and harder for less implies that slavery and employment are the same thing.

The final part of states, ‘but they too had a dream that one day their sons, daughters, grandsons, granddaughters, great grandsons, great granddaughters might pursue prosperity and happiness in this land.’ No. The African slaves who were brought to the Americas ‘in the bottom of slave ships’ were not dreaming of themselves and their descendants living out the American dream on American soil. This idea is demeaning to the generations who survived enslavement and to those who remained in Africa. It implies that transported Africans and/or their descendants were lucky to have been forcibly taken from Africa.

So where does this perception, this viewpoint comes from? It is grounded in the slavery-supporting idea of Western superiority. It was evident in the very origins of the transatlantic slave trade when the Portuguese received Papal support for slavery because it was an opportunity to spread Christianity and ‘save’ the African people through enslavement, forced transportation, and conversion.

12 million Africans were forcibly taken from Africa on the slave ships. Approximately 2 million didn’t survive the voyage to the New World. Just imagine what sort of decimation a culture, established social structures, and familial bonds go through when encountering loss on this scale. It’s horrific. Many immigrants certainly made their way to the Americas to pursue ‘the American dream’, but they weren’t slaves.

Postcard from York


York – photo credit: L. Flewelling

I was just talking to a friend (from the US) about York and as it turned out, she had a very similar experience visiting there as me – it’s a city that immediately feels welcoming and manageable and filled with fun things to see highlighting a diverse range of time periods and people (and a vague smell of chocolate in the air).


York’s City Walls – photo credit: L. Flewelling

History of York website from the York Museums Trust

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Ruins of St Mary’s Abbey – photo credit: L. Flewelling

Visit York

York Minster

York Castle Museum

National Railway Museum

JORVIK Viking Centre

Yorkshire Museum


Clifford’s Tower – photo credit: L. Flewelling


Canada’s 2016 Census: the Long-Form’s Return

On May 10, 2016, the most recent Canadian census took place. Of course, Canadians had from the 2nd to complete their forms, but the information given was meant to reflect a ‘snapshot’ of life in the country on the 10th of May.

census envelope.jpg

Censuses have been conducted in one or more regions of what is now Canada since the mid-17th century. All of the Canadian territories have been surveyed via a census every 10 years since 1851 and every 5 years since 1901. Some of the information requested be the government changes from census to census, but some items remain relatively unchanged, including family name, size of household, and ages of household and family members.

The 2016 census was memorable for a couple important reasons. First, 2016 witnessed the return of the mandatory long-form census. The long-form census is a version of the census that asks more questions than the typical form. The regular census for 2016 consisted of 10 questions; the long-form was 36 pages in length! This can include asking for detailed information about housing, income, transportation, and everyday life. Far from being viewed as a time-consuming burden, in 2016 they were a much-welcomed sight by Canadians across the country.

You see, the long-form had been discontinued by Prime Minister Stephen Harper‘s Conservative government, citing privacy concerns, and replaced with a voluntary National Household Survey. Prior to its cancellation, the mandatory long-form census, sent to 1 in 5 Canadian households, had resulted in returns of 94% in 2006. The information provided by the census had been vital to funding allocations and deciding upon necessary services for Canada’s diverse populations.

Not surprisingly, the cancellation of the mandatory long-form census was met with protest from politicians, industry and government bodies, and individuals and groups across the country. Statistics Canada voiced concerns that underrepresented populations, often the ones most in need of additional services and funding, were the most likely to not return a voluntary form. Chief statistician and Head of Statistics Canada Munir Sheikh resigned publicly over the issue. Sheikh later detailed his objectives to the cancellation in an essay entitled ‘Good Data and Intelligent Government‘.

The voluntary National Household Survey (NHS) of 2011 resulted in a collection response rate of 68.6%. People who were living on Indian reserves or in Indian settlements were also given a different version of the NHS to fill out that omitted questions about citizenship. Wayne R. Smith, the Chief Statistician of Canada, provided a very useful blog post about the potential uses and failings of the NHS in June 2015. In 2013, Global News’ Patrick Cain gave a succinct summary of the problems of moving to a voluntary response scheme, particularly the relatively high levels of non-response that forced Statistics Canada to change their own standards in an effort to derive useful information from the incomplete data sets.

It turns out that Canadians continued to feel strongly that a return to mandatory long-forms and the enforced completion and return of census information were important to the future of the country and to a government’s ability to best serve its people. Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had made the return of the long-form census a part of his election platform in the run up to the Federal Election of October 19, 2015. In November 2015 the Minister for Innovation, Science, and Economic Development, Navdeep Bains, announced that the long-form would be back in time for the next Census in 2016.

Returning to the beginning of my post, then, the census was distributed in May 2016. Canadians were so willing to contribute their information that they made international headlines by crashing Statistics Canada’s online census website, promptly earning the country the reputation of being a nation of nerds (one which Canadians proudly embraced!). According to the CBC, almost 68% of respondents filled out their forms online, setting a world record, and the total percentage of the census population that filled out their forms was a record-setting 98.4%.

Now the first of the 2016 Census releases is out, and those efforts of the many enthusiastic contributors (and those who admittedly were not as enthusiastic but were still law-abiding) are paying off with quality, accurate information the likes of which haven’t been seen in the country in almost 10 years. Historians of the future will be very happy!

Oscar Wilde in Leadville, Colorado


Harper’s Bazaar 10 June 1882

I came across this Thomas Nast cartoon earlier this week.  The caption reads, “Wilde on US.  Something to “Live Up” to in America.”

“Mr. Oscar Wilde has lately delivered a lecture in New York on Art Decoration…. In all his travels, he says, the only well-dressed men he has seen have been the miners of the Rocky Mountains.  ‘Their wide-brimmed hats, which shade their faces from the sun and protect them from the rain, and the cloak, which is by far the most beautiful piece of drapery ever invented, may well be dwelt on with admiration.  Their high boots, too, were sensible and practical.  They only wore what was comfortable, and therefore beautiful.'”

At the top of the cartoon are sketches of boxers, a liquor bottle, fighting roosters, and houses with the caption “Leadville.”

You can find more about the history of the Irish in the silver mining town of Leadville, CO in my post here.  As part of his tour of the United States in 1882, Wilde traveled to Leadville, Denver, and Colorado Springs.  He gave a talk to Leadville’s miners at the Tabor Opera House on art and aesthetics, and drank a remarkable amount of whiskey.

In his Impressions of America, Wilde noted:

From Salt Lake City one travels over the great plains of Colorado and up the Rocky Mountains, on the top of which is Leadville, the richest city in the world.  It has also got the reputation of being the roughest, and every man carries a  revolver.  I was told that if I went there they would be sure to shoot me or my travelling manager.  I wrote and told them that nothing that they could do to my travelling manager would intimidate me.  They are miners – men working in metals, so I lectured to them on the Ethics of Art.  I read them passages from the autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini and they seemed much delighted.  I was reproved by my hearers for not having brought him with me.  I explained that he had been dead for some time which elicited the enquiry ‘Who shot him’?  They afterwards took me to a dancing saloon where I saw the only rational method of art criticism I have ever come across.  Over the piano was printed a notice:


Oscar Wilde, Impressions of America

The mortality among pianists in that place is marvellous.

Heritage Minutes and Canadian History

Canadians of my generation learned their key moments in Canadian history via short television commercial segments produced by what is now Historica Canada. Known as Heritage Minutes, these short films were sent to schools, made available on tape, DVD, and online, and played during commercial breaks. They taught students and television viewers of all ages what was important in the history of our nation. The segments produced memorable catch phrases (such as the classic, ‘Doctor, I smell burnt toast!’) and have sparked numerous parodies over the years (the Rick Mercer Report‘s are always a favourite).

Over the past 26 years, Heritage Minutes have shown some of the best moments in our history as a nation: the fight for women’s rights (women’s suffrage, Canada’s first female medical doctor) and civil rights (the fight against segregated public spaces and businesses, the underground railroad); our contributions to science (the telegraph, the Avro Arrow, international standard time); and moments in our military history (Queenston Heights, Vimy Ridge, Juno Beach).

A number of the shorts are devoted to sports, with hockey unsurprisingly taking the starring role in films about the development of the goalie mask (imagine being a goalie without one!), Maurice Rocket Richard’s achievements, and the construction of Maple Leafs Gardens, although one early, memorable film was devoted to James Naismith’s invention of basketball starring those unforgettable peach baskets.

From their beginnings in 1991, Heritage Minutes didn’t shy away from acknowledging some of the more difficult moments in our history, too. From the frequent deaths of Chinese labourers building Canada’s vital coast-to-coast railway, to the devastating Halifax explosion of 1917, to the treatment of indigenous children in residential schools, these short films have also served to remind Canadians of countless lives that were lost in our recent history.

Being sent out to be viewed by school children in schools across Canada and continuing to receive significant screen time during advertisement breaks on the two major television channels year after year is a huge responsibility. By choosing what moments and which people to feature in a Minute, Historica Canada has been deciding what about Canadian history was important to remember. The Minutes have shaped a generation’s understanding of Canadian history.

Sometimes, though, it’s the way in which the message has been portrayed that’s remembered, like the burnt toast thing, instead of the film’s point. Many of us vividly remember ‘I smell burnt toast!’, as well as the graphic visual of a woman’s brain being operated on, but not Dr Wilder Penfield‘s name or the significance of his work in the field of neurology and understanding epileptic seizures.

Likewise, I remember seeing Dan Ackroyd in the Avro Arrow film and the dialogue in the Winnie the Pooh-related film, ‘Why “Pooh”, son?’ ‘I don’t know. Just Winnie-the-Pooh’, but again, the significance of the event doesn’t necessarily stick. Plus the mix of serious and lighthearted films has always been a bit jarring, as though the Minutes form a sort of puzzle of Canadian history where some of the pieces don’t obviously fit into the overall narrative of the nation’s history.

I think that examining the Heritage Minutes as a genre or teaching tool can teach us a few important points:

  1. Picking and choosing moments and people in history and having to share them with a broad television audience without the time to provide any context beyond a place and date is a problematic mandate.
  2. Making choices about what to portray and how to portray it means that you are shaping people’s understanding of history and what’s significant. They leave a lasting impression.
  3. Even in a short film of a minute or less, it’s easy for an audience to miss the point as they get stuck on the most memorable part of the film (such as the dialogue, an appearance by a celebrity, the ‘ick-factor’, or unrealistic special effects).
  4. Bite-sized doses of history can and do make an impression on a popular audience.

Thanks to YouTube and Historica Canada’s website, we can now go back and revisit some of those ‘favourite’ minutes online anytime and also look at how, if at all, what’s considered ‘important’ in Canadian history has changed over the past 26 years.

You can also follow Historica Canada on Twitter @HistoricaCanada 

John F. Kennedy and Irish History

Last fall, I wrote a series of posts discussing US Presidential visits to Ireland, and one thing that I found striking was the use of history in the Presidents’ speeches.  What did they choose to focus on in Irish history, and what historical connections between Ireland and the United States did they call upon?

The most famous visit of an American president to Ireland was that of John F. Kennedy from 26 to 29 June 1963.  Find my overview of his trip here.

The Cold War was a clear backdrop to Kennedy’s words, as he referenced Ireland’s past, present, and future role as a beacon of freedom in the world.  Other frequent themes included the role of the Irish diaspora, the life of De Valera, and the Irish participation in the American Civil War.  A breakdown of his speeches follows.

Remarks Upon Arrival at Dublin Airport (26 June 1963)

In this opening speech, Kennedy set out many of the themes for the speeches he would make throughout his visit.

As you said, eight of my grandparents left these shores in the space, almost, of months, and came to the United States. No country in the world, in the history of the world, has endured the hemorrhage which this island endured over a period of a few years for so many of her sons and daughters. These sons and daughters are scattered throughout the world, and they give this small island a family of millions upon millions who are scattered all over the globe, who have been among the best and most loyal citizens of the countries that they have gone to, but have also kept a special place in their memories, in many cases their ancestral memory, of this green and misty island. So, in a sense, all of them who visit Ireland come home.

In addition, Mr. President, I am proud to visit here because of you–an old and valued friend of my father–who has served his country with so much distinction, spreading over the period of a half-century; who has expressed in his own life and in the things that he stood for the very best of Western thought and, equally important, Western action.

And then I am glad to be here because this island still fulfills a historic assignment. There are Irishmen buried many thousands of miles from here who went on missions of peace, either as soldiers or as churchmen, who traveled throughout the world, carrying the gospel as so many Irish have done for so many hundreds of years.

Remarks on the Quay at New Ross (27 June 1963)

Kennedy fittingly recounted his own family history as emigrants from Ireland.

Remarks at Redmond Place in Wexford (27 June 1963)

Kennedy remembered the role of John Barry in the American Revolutionary War and the Irish Brigade in the American Civil War.

It seems to me that in these dangerous days when the struggle for freedom is worldwide against an armed doctrine, that Ireland and its experience has one special significance, and that is that the people’s fight, which John Boyle O’Reilly said outlived a thousand years, that it was possible for a people over hundreds of years of foreign domination and religious persecution–it was possible for that people to maintain their national identity and their strong faith. And therefore those who may feel that in these difficult times, who may believe that freedom may be on the run, or that some nations may be permanently subjugated and eventually wiped out, would do well to remember Ireland.

Remarks at the City Hall in Cork (28 June 1963)

I would like to ask how many people here have relatives in the United States.  Perhaps they could hold up their hands, if they do.

… Most countries send out oil or iron, steel or gold or some other crop, but Ireland has had only one export and that is its people. They have gone all over the United States, and the United States has been generous to them. And I think it not unfair to say that they have been generous themselves and with their sons and daughters to the United States.

… And I come to this island which has been identified with that effort for a thousand years, which was the first country in the 20th century to lead what is the most powerful tide of the 20th century–the desire for national independence, the desire to be free. And I come here in 1963 and find that strong tide still beats, still runs. And I drive from where we arrived to here and am greeted by an honor guard on the way down, nearly half of whom wear the Blue Ribbon which indicates service in the Congo. So Ireland is still old Ireland, but it has found a new mission in the 1960’s, and that is to lead the free world to join with other countries of the free world to do in the sixties what Ireland did in the early part of this century and, indeed, has done for the last 800 years–and that is associate intimately with independence and freedom.

Address Before the Irish Parliament in Dublin (28 June 1963)

Earlier in the day, Kennedy laid a wreath at the graves of the executed leaders of the Easter Rising, at Arbour Hill.


Kennedy in Ireland – photo credit: RTE

He then became the first foreign leader to address the Houses of the Oireachtas. In this important speech, Kennedy began by calling upon links between Ireland and the United States through recounting the role of the Irish Brigade in the American Civil War.

…I am proud to be the first American President to visit Ireland during his term of office, proud to be addressing this distinguished assembly, and proud of the welcome you have given me. My presence and your welcome, however, only symbolize the many and the enduring links which have bound the Irish and the Americans since the earliest days.

Benjamin Franklin–the envoy of the American Revolution who was also born in Boston–was received by the Irish Parliament in 1772. It was neither independent nor free from discrimination at the time, but Franklin reported its members “disposed to be friends of America.” “By joining our interest with theirs,” he said, “a more equitable treatment … might be obtained for both nations.”

Our interests have been joined ever since. Franklin sent leaflets to Irish freedom fighters. O’Connell was influenced by Washington, and Emmet influenced Lincoln. Irish volunteers played so predominant a role in the American army that Lord Mountjoy lamented in the British Parliament that “we have lost America through the Irish.” John Barry, whose statue we honored yesterday and whose sword is in my office, was only one who fought for liberty in America to set an example for liberty in Ireland. Yesterday was the 117th anniversary of the birth of Charles Stewart Parnell–whose grandfather fought under Barry and whose mother was born in America-and who, at the age of 34, was invited to address the American Congress on the cause of Irish freedom. “I have seen since I have been in this country,” he said, “so many tokens of the good wishes of the American people toward Ireland …. ” And today, 83 years later, I can say to you that I have seen in this country so many tokens of good wishes of the Irish people towards America.

And so it is that our two nations, divided by distance, have been united by history. No people ever believed more deeply in the cause of Irish freedom than the people of the United States. And no country contributed more to building my own than your sons and daughters. They came to our shores in a mixture of hope and agony, and I would not underrate the difficulties of their course once they arrived in the United States. They left behind hearts, fields, and a nation yearning to be free. It is no wonder that James Joyce described the Atlantic as a bowl of bitter tears. And an earlier poet wrote, “They are going, going, going, and we cannot bid them stay.”

He then called upon the words of Yeats, of Henry Grattan, of John Boyle O’Reilly, of George Bernard Shaw.

To conclude, he quoted poet George William Russell (Æ):

A great Irish poet once wrote: “I believe profoundly … in the future of Ireland … that this is an isle of destiny, that that destiny will be glorious… and that when our hour is come, we will have something to give to the world.”  My friends: Ireland’s hour has come. You have something to give to the world–and that is a future of peace with freedom.

Remarks at a Civic and Academic Reception in St. Patrick’s Hall, Dublin Castle (28 June 1963)

Kennedy praised Ireland for its educational traditions, serving as a beacon for Europe during the Dark Ages.  He compared Ireland to the United States, in its establishment of schools through the Northwest Ordinance and Land Grant colleges.

Remarks at Eyre Square in Galway (29 June 1963)

If the day was clear enough, and if you went down to the bay, and you looked west, and your sight was good enough, you would see Boston, Mass. And if you did, you would see down working on the docks there some Doughertys and Flahertys and Ryans and cousins of yours who have gone to Boston and made good.

I wonder if you could perhaps let me know how many of you here have a relative in America, who you would admit to–if you would hold up your hand? I don’t know what it is about you that causes me to think that nearly everybody in Boston comes from Galway. They are not shy about it, at all.

Remarks at a Reception in Limerick (29 June 1963)

I wonder, before I go, if I could find out how many citizens here have relations in the United States?  Do you think you could hold up your hand, if you do?  No wonder there are so many of them over there.

Well, I will tell you, they have been among the best citizens and they behave themselves very well, and you would be proud of them.  And they are proud of you.  Even though a good many years have passed since most of them left, they still remain and retain the strongest sentiments of affection for this country.  And I hope that this visit that we have been able to make on this occasion has reminded them not only of their past, but also that here in Ireland the word ‘freedom,’ the word ‘independence,’ the whole sentiment of a nation is perhaps stronger than it is almost any place in the world.

He then referenced the role of De Valera:

To see your President, who has played such a distinguished part, whose life is so tied up with the life of this island in this century – all this has made the past very real, and has made the present very hopeful.

Remarks at Shannon Airport Upon Leaving for England (29 June 1963)

In his final remarks in Ireland, Kennedy emphasized the role of history in Irish culture, and the historic connections between Ireland and America through the diaspora:

Ireland is an unusual place.  What happened 500 or 1000 years ago is yesterday; where we on the other side of the Atlantic 3000 miles away, we are next door.  While there may be those removed by two or three generations from Ireland, they may have left 100 years ago their people, and yet when I ask how many people may have relatives in America nearly everybody holds up their hands.


The Origins of a Canadian Culture

Canada is turning 150 this year!!! We’ll be celebrating with a number of posts devoted to Canadian history and culture as well as sharing information on some of the planned programmes and activities that will be taking place across the country in honour of the country’s sesquicentennial.

Canada is a young nation. In secondary school-level Canadian history classes, students are taught that Canada began to assert itself as an independent nation at the dawn of the Second World War. In September 1939, the country’s leaders waited several days before formally declaring war on Germany, yet even then Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King requested King George VI’s approval. This was a significant change from World War One, when Canada was automatically drawn into the war via England’s declaration.

Some might argue that a truly ‘Canadian’ culture really didn’t assert itself until the 1950s and 1960s. During these two decades the country witnessed a surge in funding for the arts. This included the founding of organisations such as the National Ballet of Canada (Toronto, 1951) and the Stratford Festival (Stratford, 1952), as well as the building of major national venues for the arts such as the National Arts Centre (Ottawa, 1969) and the National Theatre School of Canada (Montreal, 1960). There was also a significant expansion of existing universities and growth in the number of universities, allowing more young people to complete post-secondary education. Of course, this was also a reaction to the baby boomers reaching university age.

Canadian artists, musicians, and writers were beginning to make their mark on the national and international ‘stage’ during this period. Singers Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and Gordon Lightfoot, the rock band The Guess Who, actor Christopher Plummer, author Margaret Atwood, poet Leonard Cohen, and many more contributed to a new idea of Canada for the younger generation. The National Arts Centre’s studio theatre opened in 1969 with George Ryga’s ‘The Ecstacy of Rita Joe’, which had debuted in Vancouver in 1967. Little money or energy had been expended on developing Canadian works prior to this period.

There are a few specific moments that highlight these efforts in defining Canada and what it meant to be Canadian in the 1960s that had lasting effects on the nation. The first has to be the decision to choose a flag design for the nation. Until the 1960s, Canada was represented by the flag was the Union Jack of the United Kingdom or the Canadian Red Ensign.


Canadian Red Ensign

In the run up to the federal election of 1963, Liberal leader and Leader of the Opposition Lester B. Pearson stated that he would have a new flag for the country within two years and found a great deal of popular support for his mission. Pearson won the election. The Canada flag that we all know was inaugurated on 15 February 1965, two years ahead of the Centennial celebrations.

Flag Day, the 15th of February, has been celebrated in Canada every year since 1996. This year Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued an official statement regarding the importance and symbolism of the flag. The Government provides useful guidelines on how to display the Canadian flag. There’s also a “Share Your Moment with the Flag” challenge for 2017, where Canadians are encouraged to share a photograph or video of themselves online holding the flag somewhere using #canadianflag.

The second major defining moment of the era would have to be Expo ’67. Held in Montreal in April 1967, Expo ’67 (aka the 1967 International and Universal Exposition, or World’s Fair) displayed the optimism and excitement of Canada’s baby boomer generation and saw record-levels of attendance, making it one of the most successful and memorable World’s Fairs of the 20th century and the inspiration behind this classic Heritage Minute:

Canada’s history, of course, stretches back long before Centennial or Confederation a hundred years earlier, back to the Loyalists of the later 1700s and the French settlers and fur traders of the 1600s, and then of course to the pre-history of Canada’s first nations peoples. As such, there’s a wealth of stories to tell in the lead up to the sesquicentennial! We’ll be looking forward to joining in the celebrations from abroad and on the blog.

Historic Preservation in Ireland, Part I: UNESCO World Heritage Sites

This semester, I’ve been taking a class in (American) Historic Preservation at the University of Colorado Denver.  Learning about the ways in which historic preservation works in the United States has made me even more appreciative of our historic sites and public history efforts.  Public outreach is such an important part of the history field, and it is up to us as historians to communicate what makes the study of history important today.  Given the current political climate, knowledge of history, civics, and global connections over time seems ever more vital.  The built heritage that surrounds us is a large part of that – it brings character and identity to our communities, and helps to bring history to life for the public.

I’ll be taking a look at different ways in which historic preservation is practiced in Ireland, starting with the highest level a historic site can reach – the World Heritage Sites recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.  These are sites of cultural and natural heritage considered to be of outstanding value to humanity.

Ireland has two sites recognized as World Heritage Sites by UNESCO.

Sceilg Mhichíl


Skellig Michael – photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996, Sceilg Mhichíl (or Skellig Michael) is a monastic complex perched on a rocky island about seven miles off the coast of County Kerry.  The site is extremely remote and, as the World Heritage listing highlights, it “illustrates the very spartan existence of the first Irish Christians.” It is considered an exceptional and in many ways unique example of an early religious settlement, preserved because of its relative inaccessibility.


Skellig Michael – photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

The rock was home to a small group of ascetic monks who withdrew from civilization to found their monastery. Buildings constructed include the monastery itself, a hermitage, and, later, two lighthouses.  The monastic community appears to have moved to the mainland by the 13th century.

The Office of Public Works has held the monastic remains in state guardianship since 1880.

Sceilg Mhichíl is also renowned as one of the most important sites in Ireland for breeding seabirds.  It is designated as a Statutory Nature Reserve and Special Protection Area.


Brú na Bóinne


Knowth – photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Designated in 1993, Brú na Bóinne – Archaeological Ensemble of the Bend of the Boyne is a complex of Neolithic mounds, tombs, standing stones, and other prehistoric structures.  Human settlement at the site dates to at least 6,000 years ago, with built heritage dating from about 5,000 years ago.

At Brú na Bóinne, three large passage tombs known as Knowth, Newgrange, and Dowth dominate the landscape alongside an additional 90 monuments.  The tombs contain the largest group of megalithic art in Western Europe.  The tombs fell into disuse around 2900 BC, but the area continued to be the site of activity including the building of large earthen embanked circles, pit circles, and pit and wooden post circles (henges).

UNESCO Site: Brú na Bóinne / Skellig Michael

World Heritage Ireland: Brú na Bóinne / Skellig Michael

Heritage Ireland: Brú na Bóinne / Skellig Michael

Discover Ireland: Brú na Bóinne / Skellig Michael

Facts versus Interpretation and Why Historians Disagree

In popular culture, I think there’s a tendency to shrug off the study of history as the memorisation of dates and facts. This ignores a fundamental element of history: it’s open to interpretation. Not only that, but ‘history’ tends to have been interpreted by the time it reaches its audience.

This doesn’t mean, however, that historians can say whatever they want and it will be considered ‘fact’. There’s a number of practices in place that historians follow that allow for reasonable interpretations to shine through, including:

  • Drawing from a wide range of sources of information
  • Clearly referencing where ideas come from
  • Situating any work within the existing historiography
  • Utilising peer-review

For example, when I sit down at a desk in the library to answer a question that’s popped up while I’m writing, I’ll typically have a stack of 6 or 8 books sitting next to me and I’ll look at every one as I develop my answer.


You see, there’s an interesting element to being a historian and to reading historical works, particularly academic monographs (books on one historical topic), essay collections (usually published in book form, where each chapter is written by a different historian and the entire book is edited by one or more historians), and journal articles in peer-reviewed journals: in these works, historians are giving their opinions or interpretations rather than reciting a list of ‘facts’.

There’s a difference between giving facts and giving opinion. Here’s an example:

Fact: The British Parliament passed the Slave Emancipation Act in 1833.

Interpretation: Following a decade of intense public pressure, the British Parliament passed the Slave Emancipation Act in 1833 in part because of parliamentary reforms the previous year and because key politicians were able to negotiate acceptable terms with absentee planters in London.

Dates tend to be factual. As a result, they usually don’t need to be cited because they don’t contain anyone’s opinion. There is consensus and agreement backed up by ‘proof’. This highlights a key point of academic historical writing: the importance of clear citations and referencing. Academic, peer-reviewed works are full of footnotes because the author has drawn their information and come to their conclusions from a range of sources. They will want to acknowledge where their ideas and information have come from, so that a reader can go back and look at the documents and the interpretations for him or herself.

Let me expand for a minute on the interpretation I gave above. First, I believe more people in more regions were enfranchised in 1832 with the passing of the Reform Act, leading to a change in the makeup of Parliament (including a further lessening of the West Indian interest’s presence). Second, as a slavery historian who has studied the role of anti-abolitionists extensively, I have to acknowledge the role that planters played in the shaping of abolition. I typically study the opposition to abolition and view abolition as a debate rather than as an inevitable progressive process, and so my individual experience (in terms of education, sources of information that I’ve used in the past, etc.), history of work (as demonstrated by my list of publications), and sub-field of research (up until recently it’s perhaps best characterised as British proslavery sentiment) directly impacts upon my interpretation.

If I were stating this assertion in an essay or article, I would also cite historians who agree with me and explain how they came to their conclusions (such as what sources they were drawing upon and what elements they deemed to be more or less important in their research) and perhaps mention historians whose interpretations differ from mine and then explain why I disagree with them. This then ties into the importance of including information on historiography in writing about history.

Historiography is the study of the writing of history. It looks at how historical events are interpreted by historians over time. So yes, as a field, we openly acknowledge that, as historians, we are interpreting what we read and study and that our writing is full of opinion. Hopefully that opinion is grounded in widely-agreed upon facts, upon primary sources of information that have been seen by the historian, and upon information from the widest range of sources available, but it is still an opinion. Including information on what other historians have written in peer-reviewed works helps check this information, and including information on the most recent interpretations out there helps ensure that the information and interpretations are up-to-date and relevant to today’s field of research, because the ways in which historians have interpreted history have changed through the years, as has the information available upon which to build one’s ideas and interpretations.

It’s also important to note that this acknowledgement of interpretation is a key difference between a history textbook and an academic monograph. A textbook tends to state ‘what happened’ without allowing for the divergence of opinion and without footnotes or clear referencing that allows readers to look up where this information is coming from and what opinions underline the chosen manner in which the facts are presented to the reader. If students don’t study history beyond the secondary level, they rarely get the chance to see that history is a subject full of interpretation and debate and how large of a role the author of a text has in shaping their readers’ views. It’s also why textbooks aren’t very useful when it comes to writing history essays.

Finally, you’ve probably noticed that I’ve mentioned the term ‘peer-reviewed’ several times in this post. The peer-review process is considered to be a vital step in the publication process of academic presses and journals to maintain the publisher’s standards. Typically done anonymously, any historical writing submitted to an academic press or journal that participates in the peer-review process will be sent to one or more historians in the field to be reviewed anonymously. Their feedback on everything from title and structure, to the legitimacy of the underlying argument or thesis, the quality of the research, and the novelty of the subject is then sent to the author via the publisher, who may or may not agree to accept the reviewers’ feedback.

A quick note: this post developed out of recent discussions in the media about facts. Historians seek out the truth on a daily basis; we’re just also very honest about how we’re contextualising what we believe to be the truth through the process of writing, peer-review, and publication, clear referencing, and the acknowledgement of what other experts have to say about our subject.

For some additional interpretations of the example given above — why slavery was abolished in 1833 — why not check out webpages devoted to the topic by The National Archives (UK), BBC History (UK), or the Canadian Encyclopedia (Canada)? You’ll probably find some similarities and some differing points of view.

More Maps: John Speed’s Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine


Photo Credit: Cambridge University Library; Creative Commons License

Back with more historic maps which may be useful for generating class discussion on how such sources illustrate perceptions and views of the British and Irish in the wider world.

Today we’re highlighting the first atlas to cover the British Isles as a whole, as well as the first work to make comprehensive plans of many English and Welsh towns available in print. English historian and geographer John Speed’s Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine was published in 1611/1612, with a print run of approximately 500 copies. Each of the English and Welsh counties and the four provinces of Ireland was separately depicted, along with a larger view of Scotland.


Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Speed used previously compiled sources to inform his Theatre, but he made the maps and other elements himself.  The maps are rich with details of local history, fashions, and features, all of which would be useful in the classroom to provide a view of life in the Tudor and Jacobean eras.

With the publication of the Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine, Speed was well on his way to becoming the best-known mapmaker of his era.


Photo credit: Cambridge University Library; Creative Commons License

Cambridge University Library has a remarkable digital resource utilizing one of their five proof copies of Speed’s atlas.  It can be found here.

Additional Sources:

Annie Taylor, “A Theatre of Treasures,” Cambridge University Special Collections.

Ashley Baynton-Williams, John Speed Biography Part I, Part II, and Part III.

“Mapping the Origins of a Masterpiece,” University of Cambridge.