Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Lindqvist and Las Casas

Dorre Island, NW Australia - pretty island, ugly history?
Image Science and Analysis Laboratory, NASA-Johnson Space Center.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been reading Terra Nullius: A Journey Through No One’s Land, a travelogue about Australia by the veteran Swedish journalist Sven Lindqvist (English version Granta books, 2007 - see http://grantabooks.com/page/3012/Terra+Nullius/552). In part the book is an account of a truly epic road trip through the deserts, plateaus, farmlands and coastal strips of central, Northern and Western Australia. But the book is, above all, a meditation on the relationship between the Aboriginal populations and Europeans since the 18C. There’s some great intellectual history here: Lindqvist argues persuasively that the grand ‘theory merchants’ of the 19C, Marx, Durkheim, Freud and the early anthropologist Alfred Radcliffe-Brown, all derived major chunks of their ideas from their (very second-hand) reading of Aboriginal ‘primitive’ life. I can’t imagine this book went down well in (white) Australia, however. Above all it is a bleak pilgrimage, as Lindqvist visits dozens of sites which tell the story of how Aborigines were oppressed, murdered and exploited by Europeans from the 18C. He describes ambush massacres, forced marches through the desert in irons, prison-camps for blacks suspected of carrying venereal disease on Dorre and Bernier Islands (see photo), the mass rounding of up mixed race children, desecrated burial sites, detention/labour camps - much of all this in the 20C.

Initially, Terra Nullius reminded me of Matthew Kneale’s Whitbread-prize winning novel English Passengers, which explores the extermination of Tasmania’s native population. But the more I read, the more Lindquist’s relentless, dispassionate narrative of atrocities and genocidal actions reminded me of an iconic early modern ‘human rights’ text. In 1552 the Spanish friar Bartolome de las Casas published his Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, a little book which detailed how Spanish conquistadores had murdered, tortured, enslaved and dispossessed native populations in every single part of the Caribbean, Central and South America. Neither text is easy to read (as first year students studying Las Casas for the ‘Conquest and Colonisation’ paper on the Oxford history degree soon find). Las Casas wrote because he wanted to shock the 16C Spanish Crown into acting, and thus saving the native populations that had survived the first half-century of conquest. Lindqvist seems to have a different agenda – his concern is with history, as he offers an alternative, highly uncomfortable narrative of Australia’s past, which brings to the fore shocking events which he claims has been sidelined, forgotten and deliberately passed over in silence. Reading Lindqvist, I imagined most 21C readers will find the stories he recounts very grim, wonder if they could all be true, marvel how these things could have happened, and ask why they have not been investigated and acted upon further. Perhaps 16C Europeans, when reading Las Casas’ description of early colonial enterprise in Mexico, Cuba and Panama, felt a similar chill of disbelief, and a similar historical-moral disorientation. Interestingly, The Short Account made the Amerindians a cause-celebre in early modern Europe; Terra Nullius’ plea for the Aborigines seems instead to be regarded as a slightly left-field, literary and niche travel text.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

The Unstable Lecture

The Oxford Examination Schools - lecture venue par excellence
Photo by Matthias Rosenkranz

Hilary term is the point in the academic year when I give most of my lectures. In its basic tangible form, a lecture (at least the way I do it) consists of about 10 A4 pages of bullet points, and a memory stick with slides of 15C monarchs, paintings and frontispieces. When the time comes to dust off these props, you might tinker by incorporating the latest literature on the subject, but the lecture itself is substantially the same year after year. And yet the experience of preparing and delivering it is anything but.

Oxford lectures are meant to last 50 minutes. A lecture which has always filled this time-slot perfectly can sometimes go wildly off-schedule for no apparent reason. This term, I got half way through an often-aired lecture on Renaissance art patronage, glanced up at the big Victorian clock in the hall, and realised to my horror that we were only 15 minutes in. So I began to ad-lib, spin out some of anecdotes, speak slower – and then mysteriously struggled to wrap up in time.

One’s sense of how useful, or successful, a lecture is is also prone to highly unpredictable shifts. Most years, I pull one particular Reformation lecture out of my filing cabinet, read over it the day before, and feel that it’s basically coherent and will serve its purpose just fine. But this year, as I scanned it a certain chill descended – the text seemed full of logical non-sequiturs, gross generalisations, strangely irrelevant detail, and totally inadequate to air in public. Year after year, students had said in their feedback questionnaires that they had liked this lecture very much: how could they possibly have thought that? It was my perspectives, not the lecture stowed away in its dark drawer, which had evolved so much over the intervening year – I’d spent 5 months of leave researching this topic, and having learnt about it in much more (archival) depth, my state of knowledge from a year before (fossilised in the lecture) seemed suddenly alarmingly limited.

And a lecture isn’t just a text, it’s also a performance. One year you may have a lot of energy, real conviction about what you’re saying, and the whole thing seems to pass off pretty well.  Other years, you worry you’ve descended after 45 minutes into a monotonous low-energy mumble, and you’re not quite sure how that happened. On top of all this, audience reaction is hugely unpredictable, and totally unrelated to one’s own sense of how well the lecture has gone. Sometimes, I make it to the end of a lecture and think it would be best to leave the room as quickly and discreetly as possible; only to find the students have burst into spontaneous applause. Yet when you give a passionate delivery, with arguments which challenge received thinking, ending with a poignant vignette by way of a final flourish, you look up from the podium and find a row of very silent faces staring back.

So a lecture is at first glance a fixed body of knowledge, a sensible & steady text to teach from – but in fact it’s a living document, a reflection of the lecturer’s own shifting views, a one-off performance, an interaction with a particular set of personalities in the room. And that’s why every single lecture delivery, like a game of roulette, has a life of its own.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Egypt and Florence

Being a historian of 15th and 16th century Europe doesn’t really grant me special insight into current events in Egypt. But nonetheless, I’ve been struck by certain resonances over the past couple of days, as I’ve been marking collection papers (i.e. mock Finals exams) sat by Finalists studying the Florence & Venice Renaissance Special Subject. In this test, students have to write high-speed commentaries on 12 extracts or quotes from a selection of 16C sources. While marking, I've been wandering over to my computer at regular intervals to check the latest developments in North Africa on BBC news. So here are some quotes from Renaissance Florence and present-day Egypt.

‘And you know that our house [the Medici] never rose to any rank of greatness [in Florence] to which it was not thrust by this palace and your united consent’.

(Renaissance Special Subject paper, 2010, Question 1a:
Speech to the people by Lorenzo de’ Medici, ruler of Florence, after the Pazzi revolt of 1478, from Niccolo Machiavelli’s Florentine Histories)

‘I have never, ever been seeking power, and the people know the difficult circumstances [in which?] I shouldered responsibility.”

President Hosni Mubarak, speech to the nation, 1st Feb 2011

‘[The tyrant] lives beset with fantasies of grandeur and with melancholy and fears that always gnaw at his heart.”  

(Renaissance Special Subject paper, 2010, Question 1b:
The verdict of Savonarola, reforming friar and self-proclaimed prophet, on Lorenzo de’ Medici, 1498)

‘The tyrant has shamed himself and his name forever.’

                        Tweet from Cairo, 2.2.11 (http://twitter.com/habdelgawad)

“History will judge me and others for our merits and faults.”      
Hosni Mubarak, 1st Feb 2010

To which one might add:

“There is nothing new under the sun.”
Saint Augustine, City of God, (set text, Oxford Prelims Historiography paper).