Postcard from Snowdon

60 Mt Snowdon

Snowdon – photo credit: L. Flewelling

Snowdon is the tallest mountain in Wales at 3,560 ft (coming from the land of 14,000 ft peaks, this was mildly humorous).  The sheep seem to be there to judge you on your fitness level as you toil up the trail.  It was very, very cold at the top!  Definitely worth it for the gorgeous views, and overall I loved visiting northern Wales.

52 Sheep

Snowdon Sheep! – photo credit: L. Flewelling

65 View at the top

View from the top – photo credit: L. Flewelling

Sources 101: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, Voyages

Sources 101: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, Voyages

It’s the height of summer, and I think all of us could probably use some inspiration for new projects or more sources of information to contribute to our on-going research. While it’s not a new resource, The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database: Voyages offers quantifiable, searchable data on slaving voyages, published results, genealogical resources, and lesson plans. Having used it in my own work, I thought I’d take some time to break down its main features.

Slave Vessel image

Plan of the Slaver, Vigilante, as drawn by abolitionists in Britain, 1823.


The history of The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database is complex. It is the result of multiple grants and efforts over several decades to record and quantify the size and nature of the transatlantic slave trades of every trading nation. Early work using archival data was turned into the shared data sets of historians working on the trading of different nations, a CD-ROM in the late 1990s, and the current searchable website in the 2000s.

What You’ll Find:

The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database: Voyages contains information on nearly 36,000 individual slaving voyages that took place between the 1500s and 1800s. It also records the names of over 90,000 individuals who were forcibly shipped as slaves from Africa. These voyages and names can be searched in the Voyages Database and the African Names Database, African Origins, respectively.

Thankfully, a number of essays and estimates utilising the information found within the Voyages Database are also provided for readers and researchers to draw upon. These save time and also provide ‘jumping off’ points from which to extend, expand upon, or challenge in your own research. Contributors to the database have also devised a number of educational resources for use in schools, including lesson plans that contextualise and tie the information found within the database to US national standards for grade 6-12 history, social science, and geography.

How to Use It:

Clicking on ‘Search the Voyages Database‘ takes you to a page that initially looks overwhelming in the volume of information already on display. To create a search, work your way down the left-hand column of the page. You’ll be asked to enter a timeframe, select which variables you’re interested in specifying (such as date, origin, ownership, and outcome) and then press the “search” button. At the bottom of the left-hand column you will have the option to save a URL of your specific search.

As you can probably see, the search function of the database is geared towards asking very specific questions of the material. This is great for researchers who have exact questions in mind for their research, but not so useful for those with a general interest in the topic or want to get an idea of what the database has shown. This is another reason why the essays and estimates mentioned above are so important. It’s also no wonder that they provide a detailed guide to using the Voyages database and website and a pop-out FAQs page.

Research Potential:

The essays have the potential to be great for providing context (e.g. How big was the slave trade? What countries participated in the trade?) and the raw data is useful in answering specific inquiries (e.g. How many trips did vessel X make? Where did Captain Y sail?). Perhaps one of the most exciting, accessible pieces of work to develop out of the information contained within Voyages recently was The Atlantic Slave Trade in Two Minutes, a video by Andrew Kahn of Slate, who animated the movement and size of more than 20,000 of the voyages recorded in the database.


This is an older tool now, but it is the most comprehensive online source for information about the transatlantic slave trade that we have. The initial search page is overwhelming. This could perhaps be improved by having the search and results shown on separate pages. The search variables could be streamlined for a more intuitive experience for the searcher (such as presenting two types of search — general and advanced — depending on the type of results the searcher is looking for) that doesn’t require detailed background reading on how to use the database in order to get started. Finally, the database isn’t optimised for mobile learning via smartphones. However, much of the complexity is acknowledged and the creators attempt to address it through the various help pages.

The existence of this database is pretty amazing when you think about it. It is the outcome of decades of international, systematic, expert research and collaboration and its programmers have attempted to make it usable by anyone with an interest in the trade and the people who were caught up in it. It also seeks to assist people looking for teaching resources, background information on the trade of the many nations taking part, and family history and genealogy. And as Kahn’s video demonstrates, the information contained within it has the potential to inform a wide range of audiences. Definitely worth a look!

Using Maps as Primary Sources for Class: Windows to Historical Worldviews


15th Century rendering of Ptolemy’s Map of the World – photo credit: wikimedia commons

One of my favorite sources to spark discussion in class, especially in courses like the Atlantic World, British Empire, and American history, are historic maps.  What can maps tell us about how people at the time perceived the world around them?  What did the maps prioritize in their depictions of the world?  Who created them and what knowledge did they draw upon?  How did these views change over time?  One of the big benefits to using maps is that they are easily comparable between time periods for students.  And they allow students to easily grasp just how huge of an impact the era of explorations had on European conceptions of the world around them.


Babylonian Clay Tablet with Map, ca. 600-550 BC, now in the British Museum – photo credit: wikimedia commons

Another benefit of using maps as a basis for class discussion is that it makes clear to students that people in Columbus’s time did not believe that the world was flat (this seems to be a recurring misconception).

Claudius Ptolemy produced his descriptive atlas in Alexandria in the 2nd century, which was still considered one of the best sources for knowledge of world geography by the 15th century.  His atlas consisted of a huge list of descriptive coordinates for cities and other known locations, which were then interpreted by mapmakers as seen in the map at the top of the page.  As can be seen, Africa and India are distorted, the Mediterranean is overly large and depicted at the center of the map, and the areas within Greece and the Roman Empire are the most accurate.  Ptolemy also tended to fill empty spaces on the map with “theoretical conceptions,” rather than leaving unknown areas blank.

After the Library at Alexandria was destroyed, there was little advancement in cartography from the time of Ptolemy.  Medieval maps tended to place Jerusalem at the center of the known world, and represented both geographical knowledge of the physical route to Jerusalem as well as a symbolic route for salvation.  The Hereford Mappa Mundi, created ca. 1300 and housed at the Hereford Cathedral, is a T-O map with Jerusalem at the center, the East at the top, and Britain and Ireland on the bottom left.  Along with cities and towns, the map depicts Biblical events, plants and animals, fantastical creatures, and classical mythology.


Hereford Mappa Mundi – photo credit: wikimedia commons

Another one of the most notable medieval maps was that created in 1450 by the Venetian monk and cartographer, Fra Mauro (who also has a region of the moon named after him, where Apollo 13 was supposed to land).  His map was considered the most detailed and accurate of its time, including Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Atlantic.  And you can see that he oriented the map with the South at the top.


Fra Mauro Map, now at the Museo Correr in Venice – photo credit: wikimedia commons

And finally, we have the 1507 map created by Martin Waldseemüller, the first map to label the newly-discovered continent in the western hemisphere “America.”  This map includes knowledge about the coasts of Africa and India from recent explorations and discoveries, and includes a large ocean to the east of Asia: a very early depiction of the Pacific.  But the aspect which students are most responsive to is the narrow strip of land encompassing all that was known at the time about North and South America.  You can see the detailed east coast and Caribbean, and the hazier depiction of land to the west.


Waldseemüller Map, Universalis Cosmographia, now housed in the Library of Congress – photo credit: Library of Congress

Obviously there are many more historical maps that could be used as examples.  But overall, I can’t say enough about how well students respond to maps such as these as the basis for jump-starting class discussion, having students make discoveries that you might not have noticed yourself, and, even if this might all seem rather perfunctory, I find them very fun discussions both as an instructor and for students to help understand how Europeans of different eras envisaged the world around them.

  • See also: Simon Garfield, On the Map: A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks (New York: Gotham, 2013).

Slavery, H-Net, & Keeping Up with Social Media

H-Slavery has just joined Twitter! For those of you new to H-Net, H-Net, Humanities and Social Sciences Online, is a volunteer organisation of historians and individuals interested in history who organise, monitor, contribute to, and follow one or more forums on specific fields or topics related to history that are attached to a central site. Personally, I follow H-Slavery (and have off and on since I first found out about it in 2005) and H-Albion and receive regular digests of their forum posts in my email inbox.

H-Net provides information in their forums on new books, job postings, CFPs (calls for papers for conferences), new journal issues, and lots more. It is also a space for individuals to ask for advice, post questions, and get answers from some experts in their field. I highly recommend checking them and requesting to join one or more that interest you. It’s a great way to stay up to date on your field, get some new ideas or leads, and maybe even share some advice with fellow followers.

Like I was saying, a few followers of H-Slavery (including myself) are now running this new Twitter account, @H_Slavery_HNet. By joining Twitter, H-Slavery is joining the trend of organisations and groups to create, gather, and share additional content while building connections with others of similar interests. Social media facilitates and encourages sharing, creating, “liking”, and curating personalised content online in one or more spaces, including (but certainly not limited to) Twitter, Facebook, blog providers such as WordPress (which we use here at Isles Abroad), and YouTube. You’ll typically see symbols of these applications in the corner of traditional, static websites that will lead you to their social media accounts and, hopefully, their most up-to-date content and information.

Through a Twitter account, H-Slavery hopes to share resources, participate in on-going discussions, and track what’s happening in the field of history as it happens. This venture has me thinking about various branches of social media that are creating, sharing, and commenting on content related to slavery history. Here’s just a few accounts in a range of formats you might want to check out to stay up-to-date on the subjects of historical (and in some cases modern) slavery study:


The HAS Blog — Historians Against Slavery

National Museums Liverpool Blog — Items tagged “International Slavery Museum”

Twitter Accounts

@Slavery Justice — Brown University’s Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice

@WISE_HullWilberforce Institute for the study of Slavery and Emancipation

Facebook Pages

Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition

The Slave Dwelling Project

Federalism and Irish Home Rule

In the aftermath of the Brexit vote, I’ve seen the idea of federalism to be applied to the United Kingdom come up several times.  I thought it would be interesting to revisit the debate over federalism in an earlier era to see how it was addressed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  The idea of federalism is especially interesting to me in thinking about how it might work with the structure of the United Kingdom, where powers have been devolved from the center to the national assembly and parliaments of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland – rather than the separate nations/states/provinces coming together to form the central government as happened in the formation of the United States and in Canada.

By the Home Rule era, federalist ideas as applied to the Irish situation were not new: Daniel O’Connell had been tempted by the federalist plans of William Sharman Crawford in the 1840s, and Isaac Butt had originally started the Home Rule movement in the 1870s with ideas of a federal system in the United Kingdom that would help to address Irish grievances.

While not a part of the constitutional system of the United Kingdom, federalism was a frequent undercurrent in British political thought.  As Michael Burgess points out, the United Kingdom became a major “exporter” of federal systems to other places in the world, including Australia, Canada, India, Nigeria, and Malaysia, as well as federalism playing an influential role in the unification of South Africa.

Throughout the Home Rule era, federalist ideas were promoted or suggested by many politicians of different stripes, either to illustrate parallels between federalist systems and the Home Rule bills or to work as alternatives to Home Rule.  Another important element within federalist thought was imperial federation, which operated both within and outside of the Irish Home Rule context.  At one time or another, Joseph Chamberlain, W.T. Stead, Lord Acton, J.R. Seeley, J.L. Garvin of the Observer, David Lloyd George, Walter Long, L.S. Amery, and Edward Carson all espoused federalist ideas.  On the nationalist side, federalism found champions in Moreton Frewen, William O’Brian, and T.M. Healy.

Some Irish unionists viewed the Home Rule bills as introducing a federal-state dynamic into the relationship between Britain and Ireland.  Carson questioned why the bills did not adhere more closely to the American system.  In parliamentary discussions on the second Home Rule bill, Carson reasoned, “As in America, where they had a distinction between Federal matters and State matters, so under the Bill, where they had a distinction between Imperial matters and local matters, they would necessarily have disputes between the Irish Government and the Imperial Government.”  Given the inevitability of future conflict, Carson wondered why the Home Rule bill failed to set up a court system similar to that of the United States.  He hoped for a Supreme Court to settle potential disputes between the two governments.

In a later speech, Carson again emphasized the parallels with the American system of federalism.  He questioned, “The only parallel they had for the Constitution they were now setting up in Ireland was the Constitution of America.  It had been taken from the American Constitution, but why did not the Government follow the provision of the American Constitution, which set up a Federal Executive in each State?”  Carson wished for greater adherence to the American federal system, including a federated state-style government, to ensure protections of unionist interests and preservation of the Union.

On the other hand, W.E.H. Lecky argued that the federal system would not matter in the slightest if the same Irish nationalists were in charge of the Home Rule parliament.  He wrote, “It is this profound division of classes in Ireland that makes all arguments derived from the example of federal governments in Europe or America so utterly fallacious.  The first question to be asked before setting up a local legislature is ‘Who are the men who are likely to control it?’”  Lecky believed that the strong divisions in Ireland meant that unionists would not be represented in the new government no matter what system was in place.

J.A. Rentoul, MP for East Down, pointed out another inherent problem in the comparisons of federalism in the two countries.  Ultimately, the United States presented an example that was the opposite of Home Rule.  Rentoul argued,

There was no one of the United States of America that claimed to be a nation or that asked for national privileges.  Each State of the United States gave up certain powers of its own, in order that it might be met by other States giving up those same powers to what I may term a supreme legislature which governed them all…. In the United States, then, it was not the case of a number of nations being restrained from exercising their proper rights and privileges, but of States voluntarily giving up to a Constitution, which they themselves had founded, certain of their rights, in order that they might assist in exercising similar rights over other States.

As Rentoul asserted, the federal system of government in the United States was not regulating a number of separate nations devolving power from a central government, as would be the case with Ireland under the Home Rule Bill.  The United States represented the exact opposite: a number of states coming together into a voluntary union with each other when they would have otherwise been separate.  It was apparent, therefore, that unity was enshrined in the American constitution.

By the time of the third Home Rule Bill, federal options were gaining more consideration.  This was especially the case after the passage of the 1911 Parliament Act meant that it was increasingly likely that some form of Home Rule would be passed.  By the end of the Home Rule period, the most important federalist thinkers were F.S. Oliver and the Earl of Selborne.  With increased support for federalist options, unionists continued to criticize the Liberals for the system set up in the Home Rule Bill.  Many of these criticisms were based on the idea that it was the Liberal Party’s intention to eventually implement a federal system for the whole United Kingdom.

Oliver was active in this criticism.  In a series of letters to the Times, he questioned the tariff provisions within the Home Rule Bill.  He wrote,

At what stage of the proceedings, for instance, was the tariff concession wrung from a Government pledged to the maintenance of Free Trade – a concession which will inevitably entail the erection of a Customs barrier between Ireland and Great Britain?  Of all the farcical features in the Bill this perhaps is the most absurd.  For it has been the aim hitherto of every confederation in the world to get rid of hindrances and restraints upon trade between its various members.  This principle of freedom is the foundation upon which not only the unity but the prosperity of the United States is based.

Oliver argued that the United States, Canada, Australia, and South Africa had all fought and sacrificed to get rid of customs barriers.  Oliver believed that unity could not be maintained with customs barriers cutting through the heart of the United Kingdom.

The Ulster Unionist Council saw the existence of customs barriers within the Home Rule Bill as creating a farce of the idea that the Liberal government ever intended to implement a wide-reaching federal system.  In 1912, the UUC issued a resolution stating, “The hypocrisy of the pretence that the present Bill is the forerunner of a Federal Constitution for the United Kingdom is shown by the Customs barriers proposed to be set up between Great Britain and Ireland, an arrangement unknown in any existing Federal system.”  This was again an example of unionists calling for the Home Rule Bill to adhere more closely to existing federal systems such as that in the United States.

Additional Reading:

  • Duncan Bell, The Idea of a Greater Britain Empire and the Future of World Order, 1860-1900 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007).
  • Andrea Bosco, ed., The Federal Idea, Vol. I: The History of Federalism from the Enlightenment to 1945 (London: Lothian Foundation Press, 1991).
  • George Boyce and J.O. Stubbs, “F.S. Oliver, Lord Selborne, and Federalism,” Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 5, no. 1 (Oct. 1976).
  • Michael Burgess, “Federalism: A Dirty Word? Federalist Ideas and Practice in the British Political Tradition” (London: Federal Trust Working Papers, 1988).
  • A. Kennedy, “Sharman Crawford’s Federal Scheme for Ireland,” in Essays in British and Irish History in Honour of James Eadie Todd, ed. H.A. Cronne, T.W. Moody, and D.B. Quinn (London: Muller, 1949).
  • Lawrence J. McCaffrey, “Irish Federalism in the 1870s: A Study in Conservative Nationalism,” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 52, no. 6 (1962).
  • Alan J. Ward, “Frewen’s Anglo-American Campaign for Federalism, 1910-1921,” Irish Historical Studies 15, no. 59 (Mar 1967).

History, Comedy, & Good TV

With summer now in full swing, it’s time to think about the new school year on its way and some ways to make history and social science curriculum, content, and the student learning experience more exciting. Looking for some fun, accessible takes on historical events and eras? Here are two of my favourites that you might want to check out:

History Bites

This Canadian sketch show from the late 1990s and early 2000s looked at significant historical dates from the perspective of someone watching the event unfold on television. A small ensemble of actors played recurring characters giving context and information about the event in recognisable television genres, all hosted by Rick Green aka Bill from The Red Green Show. They utilised news segments, sitcoms, talk shows, game shows, soap operas, etc. to show different aspects of the event as it unfolded and the sketches were shown as though the viewer (or Rick) was flipping through the channels. Definitely not for children, but older teens might be up for looking past the production levels to enjoy a different take on history.

Memorable moment:

Who Killed JFC – A JFK-style conspiracy about Julius Caesar’s assassination

Horrible Histories

This UK comedy sketch show is based on Terry Deary’s best-selling Horrible Histories books (which has spawned a range of spin-offs). Off and on since 2009 as a live action television show, Horrible Histories prides itself on sharing the gross, disgusting, and even horrific details that school history curriculum tends to leave out of the story in a show meant for young people. At one point 50% of British children aged 6-12 were watching the show. With a rat playing host, a great cast, writers who were openly influenced by Blackadder and Monty Python, catchy songs with impressive historical content, and a love of jumping around time periods and locations, it’s amusing for kids and parents.

Memorable moments:

The Monarch’s Song – A quick, catchy look at every British monarch since 1066

RAF Pilot Song – A touching, boy band-style tribute to the RAF pilots of WWII

Further Reading:

Leo Hickman, ‘How Horrible Histories became a huge hit’, The Guardian, 17 March 2011.

Margaret Scanlon, ‘History Beyond the Academy: Humor and Horror in Children’s History Books’, New Review of Children’s Literature and Librarianship Vol. 16 (2011): 69-91.

Department for Education, ‘National curriculum in England: history programmes of study’, Statutory Guidance, 11 September 2013.

Postcard from Oxford


Oxford – photo credit: L. Flewelling

Ten years ago (!!) this month, I was studying abroad at Oxford through a program with the University of Oklahoma, which was quite simply an amazing experience.  While I did my masters degree at Cambridge, I still have a soft spot for the picturesque city.


View of the Bridge of Sighs and some dreaming spires – photo credit: L. Flewelling

British Airport Travel Tips

British Airport Travel Tips

It’s summer, we’ve been traveling for much of the past few weeks, and the pace won’t be letting up anytime soon. As I sit here at Dublin Airport on a 5 hour layover, I thought I would share a few top tips that might smooth the way through airports in the British Isles if you’ll be heading over here for research, a conference, or for fun!


1. Consider flying within the British Isles. If you’re booking in advance and are somewhat flexible as to times and airports, a flight can be considerably cheaper than the train. Travel time might not be significantly better, however, thanks to the standard request for passengers to arrive at the airport at least 2 hours early. Buses booked ahead can be the cheapest option, but also a long, uncomfortable one too. Ferries and ferry-train combinations, such as these suggestions from ScotRail, can make for a more relaxing, comfortable journey.


2. Check In Online. This is fairly standard now, not just for within Europe, and it’s worth doing! You’ll be able to skip standing in line to check in (and skip the line altogether if you’re only bringing carry-on luggage). Print off your boarding pass ahead of time, too, to avoid extra costs at the airport (I’m looking at you, Ryanair), or just follow tip number 3. No printer or computer while you’re travelling? You’ll tend to find electronic kiosks in the departures area at the airport (and sometimes the train station where you catch the airport express train, like I recently found at Oslo Central Station in Oslo, Norway) where you can check in.

3. Download the Airline’s App. Many major international airlines have their own apps to download onto your phone. From there you can check in, add baggage and choose your seat (usually for a fee), check the flight’s status, and it gives you your digital boarding pass right on your phone. Then just scan your phone and show your passport at security and the gate and you’re set! But be sure to screenshot the boarding pass, keep a photo of it and bring a phone charger, just in case! Or print a paper copy of your pass once you get to the airport at one of the kiosks.

4. Travel Light. Most airlines within the UK and Europe will charge you for every piece of hold luggage, so check out the details of your carry-on allowance and see if you can make do with that. It also saves considerable time before departure (having checked in online or at a kiosk you can go straight to security and skip the baggage drop off queue) and when you arrive you’ll have all your luggage at hand. No waiting at baggage claim and no one else can lose your luggage.

5. Know Your Baggage Allowances. These vary in terms of size, weight, type, and number of bags for each airline and can also vary depending on the origin and destination of the flight. For example, transatlantic flights tend to give you one free hold bag of approximately 23kg (time to get out the scale and Google the conversion!), but once you’re in Britain, flying domestically and/or within Europe you’ll almost certainly have a smaller allowance, sometimes even from the same airline if it’s a flight that was booked separately. Some airlines even weigh your carry-on. Too heavy? You could be facing some hefty charges, so avoid that with a weigh-in ahead of time.

Happy travels!