Research based on 19th century material from the Sierra Leone Public Archives

Megane Coulon

In the nineteenth century, Freetown acted as a centre of slave trade suppression in West Africa. My doctoral thesis analyses changes in the make-up of the population and society of this urban centre in the mid to late nineteenth century. It evaluates migration patterns, social and economic stratification, family connections as well as the emergence of professional and business networks. My research draws on the analysis of records available at the Sierra Leone Public Archives, which have been digitised by the British Library.

The British Library Endangered Archives programme has funded the digitisation of over 260 volumes from the Sierra Leone Public Archives through two projects entitled ‘Nineteenth century documents of the Sierra Leone Public Archives (EAP443)’ and ‘Preserving nineteenth-century records in the Sierra Leone Public Archives (EAP782)’. Analysis of the digitised volumes makes it possible to trace the lives of Africans released from slave ships and forcibly relocated to Sierra Leone by cross-referencing information recovered from other sources, including the 1831 census for Freetown. For instance, on 15 April 1827, Argossee, a twenty-four-year old woman, was disembarked from the Portuguese vessel NS da Conceição de Maria (25,444). The Registers of Liberated Africans recorded that she was married in Freetown to Thomas French. By 1831, they both lived at 58 Bathurst Street in Freetown with five other people and her official name had been changed to Mary French.

The digitised materials include police court records, records of the court concerned with the  recovery of small debts, governor’s despatches, birth registers and death registers, among other sources. These documents provide a wide range of evidence from which to understand the nature of the society that emerged in Freetown in the nineteenth century. My research focuses on Freetown between 1819 and 1862, and I use volumes held in the Sierra Leone Public Archives to trace a number of issues. Birth registers recorded the birth of 1,620 children between 1857 and 1862. They contain the name, place of residence, and occupations of the fathers. I analyse these records to understand patterns of social and economic stratification in Freetown by looking at social clusters and household formation. Thousands of cases were registered in the police court records, which provide evidence on the experiences of individuals released in the British Crown colony. The testimonies of women in these records reveal a broader history of African women. On 4 April 1839, Betsy Jarrett charged John French, William Falconer, John Moore, and George Barnes of conspiring to defraud her of her deceased husband’s property. After spending time away from the Colony, she came back and asked to see her husband’s will. A witness, William Simmons, said that her husband had left his property to Barnes and Elizabeth Campbell, a woman who was living with him before he died. Simmons stated that Betsy’s husband had not left any property to her in his will.

Even though Freetown was the headquarters of British slave trade suppression, the court records still contain details of slave sales in and around the colony. The testimonies found in these records bring the voices of enslaved people to light.

Megane Coulon is a History PhD student at the University of Worcester.

Can stories save the earth?

Amandine Vincent

Having grown up in the French Alps, mountains have always been part of my life, and it is indisputable that they have shaped my imaginary world. They almost constantly invite themselves into my writing, from appearing as a mere backdrop to being centre stage in the stories that I write to explain how some of the mountain phenomena and geology came to be. I have had a fascination for myths, folktales and legends since childhood, and aetiological narratives especially, such as those found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, have always deeply resonated with me. For as long as I can remember, I have looked to stories to understand the origins of the natural world around me, and whenever a question remained unanswered, my imagination would take over and create new stories. It was my way of connecting with my environment and feeling in symbiosis with nature. The mountains were the playground for my imagination, where it could run wild and free, and where it would grow. When I left to go to University, I suddenly found myself in a large city; in that urban environment, where the stars had almost disappeared from an electric night sky, and where the only visible summits were those of concrete towers, I struggled to find enough inspiration to write. But whenever I would return home, under the mountains’ spell stories would, once again, flow out of me. I started to realise then how crucial nature is to my story-writing and story-telling, and many of them still come to me while daydreaming on a walk in places where I feel close to nature, and where I feel it whispering to me like a muse, inviting me to celebrate it.

But what used to be something rather carefree, that I was practising with a light heart, out of sheer passion for writing and a sense of wonder for the natural world, is now becoming something more necessary as the current climate has shed a new light on the importance of stories depicting an increasingly fragile nature. I have been writing tales about mountains, ice and snow for around two decades, but it is only within the last few years that their true significance and the role that they can play have emerged, as it has become clear that their subject and very source of inspiration is now endangered. Indeed, the Alps are one of the places on the planet where you can observe the dramatic effects of anthropic global warming and pollution first-hand. Every winter, a yellowish fog lingers in the valley for several days because of a high concentration of fine particles that is emphasised when the weather conditions are too dry. Every winter, there is a fear hanging in the not-so-cold-and-not-so-pure-anymore air: the fear that snow, the ‘white gold’ as we call it, may not fall at all, and that, one day, it may be a rarity, until it eventually becomes something that future generations might only know of and experience through stories. This is also a concern with respect to glaciers that are melting much faster than normal because of greenhouse gas emissions. The Mer de Glace (literally ‘Sea of Ice’), which is the largest French glacier, located in Chamonix, is the perfect example. The very evocative and distinguishable shape to which it owes its name, and that has inspired some of my stories, is now being disfigured by global warming, and its once immaculate splendour has started turning rock-grey. Our seas of ice are in as an alarming state as our blue seas.

In light of this, at a time of climate emergency, there is a real urgency to record that which is at risk. Narratives featuring landscapes that are already irremediably changing are now becoming de facto a way to document them before they disappear completely. Writing stories about it is certainly an attempt at making the natural world eternal, but their power goes far beyond that of documenting. The role of the legends that I have written about the Mer de Glace isn’t only to reflect a once glorious nature that is now degrading but it is, more importantly, to be reflected upon and fight against its decay through storytelling. Writing about nature is not so carefree or done so light-heartedly anymore. It comes with responsibility; the responsibility to defend and protect its existence upon which depends our very own.

Because, of course, beyond the sole aesthetical pleasure and satisfaction one can feel when gazing at it, nature’s importance lies first and foremost in its power to give us life and sustain us. This should go without saying as we shouldn’t need to be reminded of it, but the fact is we do. In our ‘developed’ countries, where we are used to freshwater miraculously spurting out of a tap and to food appearing, as if by magic, on supermarket shelves, ready to cook and sometimes even ready to eat, where the majority of people live in cities, roam the earth in a car and ‘experience’ the world through screens, it is easy to overlook what nature gives us and the fact that our lives depend on it. But this is a truth that is harder to forget in places where nature is present in everyday life and where the relationship we have with it is more direct. Wherever nature is predominant, people are forced to take it into consideration as it can be a matter of life and death if they do not. Imposing, nature imposes its point of view and dictates how they live. In the Alps, the mountains are at the base of an economy that largely relies on winter sports, and the glaciers are not only a reservoir of freshwater but also a reserve of energy – a power plant has been built in a hidden cavity of the Mer de Glace to produce electricity with meltwater from the glacier. The mountains have shaped the traditions, folklore and activities. There, we can really see nature’s omnipotence at work as, in the same way it provides the locals with the resources that they need to survive, it can also take their lives, something they will all be aware of, having known or heard of someone who died in the mountains, carried away by an avalanche or lost forever in a crevasse.

Wherever the existence of nature and that of humans are most fully entwined, climate change is felt more strongly because it is having direct and considerable consequences on lives. Nature there has become a compass to assess the relationship that we have with it on a global scale, and its verdict is clear: our behaviour is destroying the balance that our species had with it, putting our own way of life in jeopardy. Indeed, global warming is making the mountains more hostile in multiple ways: it is causing them to be more deadly by, for instance, weakening the snow bridges over crevasses, and triggering more avalanches, more landslides; it is putting the winter sports industry at risk because of unreliable or scarce snowfalls; it is disturbing the hydrological cycle, which, in turn, poses a threat to the whole irrigation system in the area, on which agriculture, farming, as well as drinking water supplies, rely.

But let’s not forget that what is happening in the mountains will have serious repercussions on the entire world. Not only is the melting of glaciers around the globe directly connected to the rising of sea levels, it will also lead to shortages of freshwater, given that they are its largest reservoir on earth. As one of the geological features most affected by human-made global warming, the glaciers will eventually be the measure of our failure or success in tackling it. The ominous message, entitled “A letter to the future”, written on the plaque commemorating the Icelandic glacier Ok sums it up well: “Ok is the first Icelandic glacier to lose its status as a glacier. In the next 200 years all our glaciers are expected to follow the same path. This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.” Even if it can’t be felt globally yet, the mountains’ fate is linked to our fate. Nature’s story is our story, and thanks to their ability to bring people closer to the natural world regardless of where they live, in order to help them reconnect with it, stories are a weapon, a weapon of mass instruction and construction, that can save the planet.

We find the power of storytelling acknowledged in the etymology itself. In French, the words charme (‘charm’), as in enchantment, and chant (‘song’) share a common Latin root: Carmen, which also happens to mean ‘poem’, thereby establishing the indivisible link that exists between poetry and magic, storytelling and power. When words sing nature’s beauty, they become infused with its might, and they rise like an incantation, a wish, a prayer for it to be reborn, untouched by man – and there is, undoubtedly, something particularly powerful in stories that tell of how landscapes were born, offering us a glimpse of a world that predates us. Fairy tales, myths and legends have the undeniable ability to re-enchant nature. They open our eyes to its otherworldly beauty, give it a voice and unveil its power through the use of enchanted places or magical beings, such as fairies, elves, nymphs, sirens, talking animals, etc., all of which embody different aspects of the natural world. By depicting it as supernatural, stories turn nature into a super nature in order to make us realise how omnipotent it naturally is and that it, therefore, commands our awe and respect. Our ancestors knew this well. They considered the earth as a deity and saw in all natural things the imprint of the divine, a wisdom that we now seem to have forgotten. Throughout the centuries, as we have been seeking to tame and control nature with the ambition to free ourselves from it and assert our domination, we have lost something valuable: our humbleness and our ability to wonder. Both stemmed from the reverence and respect we once had for nature, the fear it inspired in us, the magic we used to see in it and the divine we used to find in it, which we have gradually grown ashamed of and rejected in a world essentially ruled by Reason. As a result, we have reduced to silence the sensitive, emotional part of ourselves, our inner child that now needs to wake and that, without giving up rationalism and giving in to superstition, we have to start listening to. Stories can help us do that as they do not only have the ability to make us see the unseen and re-enchant the world we live in but, more importantly, they have the power to re-enchant our own outlook on it.

Stories have the capacity to make us see things from a different perspective, thus think differently. And myths, legends and fairy tales certainly encourage us to reconsider how we relate to nature. They create a world where it is no longer an object of our domination and exploitation but a subject in its own right, an ancient force whose magic, power and wisdom are fully recognised. Similarly to how we are forced to consider nature’s point of view wherever it is predominant, when reading these stories we are compelled to stop seeing it through the eyes of a conqueror or predator, and shift our perspective from an anthropocentric view of the world to an ecocentric one. Whether nature is presented as an ally or a foe, it is almost always shown as superior to us, putting us back in our place. Stories remind us that nature is our most resourceful teacher, a truth often illustrated in fiction by a human hero seeking help from a magical or ancient creature, and illustrated in real life by the existence within nature itself of solutions to many of our environmental issues – let’s not forget, for instance, that whales and trees are precious allies in reducing our carbon emissions and fighting climate change. Given the challenges we are faced with, we had better start paying attention to nature’s teachings and guidance. Sir Ken Robinson said that “one of the most urgent issues facing humanity is fixing our broken relationship with the earth, on which all life depends” and that, to do so, “we have to think, feel, and act differently”. That is exactly what stories can help us achieve, and it is the reason why we should not only tell myths, fairy tales and legends to children but, just as importantly, tell them to adults, as there is an urgency to reconcile them with that part of themselves that still gets stopped in their tracks whenever the fiery beauty of a sunset changes the sky or the extraordinary colourful arch of a rainbow suddenly appears above their head. Only then will they so desperately seek to preserve the natural world instead of destroying it.

By helping us cultivate and embrace our sensitivity, stories invite us to “dwell poetically on the earth”, to paraphrase a verse by Hölderlin, grasp reality through the lens of poetry, live with a constant sense of humbleness and wonder, and move through the world with grace, so as to have a minimal impact on nature. It is time to give as much value to the poetic and artistic point of view as we do to the rational one. It is with the arts and sciences working hand-in-hand that we will be able to figure out how our species can inhabit the planet in symbiosis with nature and create a more harmonious world.

So can stories save the earth? Yes, they can. If we let them change us.

Amandine Vincent is a French writer, actress and storyteller. She is the founder and artistic director of the theatre and production company La Banshee. She holds a master’s degree (Research) in French Literature and Language, as well as an MA (Acting) in Classical and Contemporary Text. This blog piece was originally delivered as a presentation to the Enchanted Environments Symposium at the University of Worcester, 6 March 2020. Amandine illustrated her talk by sharing some of her stories. Photograph credit: Mer de Glace glacier by SimonPixabay.

Recent Research on the Atlantic Slave Trade at the University of Worcester

Suzanne Schwarz

My research on the transatlantic slave trade involves reconstructing the names and identities of men, women and children forcibly shipped from Africa in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. This research is vital to understanding the human impact of this vast trade, as historians currently know the African names of only a small proportion of the estimated 12.5 million individuals uprooted and displaced between the early sixteenth and the mid nineteenth centuries. Through my work on Sierra Leone, I contribute to a number of international collaborative projects to reconstruct biographical information on the identities, origins and experiences of Africans shipped for the Americas. I am currently part of an international research team, led by Professor Paul E. Lovejoy, working on ‘Documenting Africans in Trans-Atlantic Slavery (DATAS)’. This research project ‘centers on the need to understand the origins and trajectories of people of African descent who populated the trans-Atlantic world in the modern era’.

Reconstructing biographical information on enslaved Africans requires the linkage of fragmentary pieces of evidence dispersed in archives in West Africa, North America, South America, the Caribbean and Europe. The process of tracing names is complicated by the fact that merchants and mariners engaged in the trade had no interest in recording details of the identities of those loaded as ‘cargo’ on their vessels. Records for slaving ventures indicate that mariners typically ascribed numbers to individuals purchased in West Africa. As David Eltis points out, it ‘is difficult to believe in the first decades of the twenty-first century that just over two centuries ago, for those Europeans who thought about the issue, the shipping of enslaved Africans across the Atlantic was morally indistinguishable from shipping textiles, wheat, or even sugar’. This contemporary mind-set is illustrated clearly in the letters of James Irving, a Scottish surgeon and captain employed in the Liverpool slave trade. After a slaving voyage to New Calabar in the Bight of Biafra, he wrote to his wife in November 1786 to inform her that he had arrived safely in Barbados after an Atlantic crossing (or Middle Passage) of 46 days. He explained that the vessel was carrying on to Tobago, where ‘we expect to sell our Cargo’. In a postscript to the letter, he noted that, ‘We [the officers] have been all healthy and buried 48 slaves’. In a letter from Tobago on 2 December 1786, he wrote again to his wife at College Lane in Liverpool to say he was still healthy. He explained that ‘we have … not yet dispos[e]d of any of our very disagreeable Cargo’, but thought it would take place five days later ‘when our Sale Opens’. For further details on Irving’s role in the slave trade see S. Schwarz, ed., Slave Captain: The Career of James Irving in the Liverpool Slave Trade (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2007), 84-87.

My research draws on rare and endangered primary sources held in the Sierra Leone Public Archives in Freetown. These sources include a long series of Registers of Liberated Africans, which record the names of tens of thousands of Africans released from slave ships over a period of more than half a century. After the shift in attitudes accompanying the passage of the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1807, Royal Navy vessels were sent to the new British Crown colony at Sierra Leone to intercept illegal slaving ventures. These policies of slave trade suppression led to the release of an estimated 100,000 Africans at Freetown in the nineteenth century, and the names of the Africans forcibly relocated to the Crown colony were recorded in a series of registers. The first ship recorded in the register for 1808-1812 was the Marie Paul, intercepted by HMS Derwent in November 1808. An affidavit sworn by Charles de Bonnay, captain of the Marie Paul, stated that the vessel had sailed from Senegal on 20 August 1808 ‘with a cargo of slaves bound to Cayenne in South America’. The badly damaged register records the names of sixty men, women and children who were disembarked at Freetown. Birum, aged thirty and five feet four inches tall, was among the adult males. The description column in the register included the note that his ‘breast [was] burn[t] severely’, an injury that may have been sustained during his period on the slave ship. Among the women listed was Adam, aged 26, and 5 feet 3 inches tall. She was the mother of an infant girl named Anta, described as a ‘sucking child’.

By using Registers of Liberated Africans and other archival sources in Britain, North America and the Caribbean, I trace what happened to African men, women and children after their disembarkation at Freetown, Sierra Leone. This was the subject of a paper presented at a major international conference on Liberated Africans, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council for Canada, at York University in Toronto in 2015. My paper subsequently formed the basis of a chapter in a book published last year, ‘The Impact of Liberated African “Disposal” Policies in Early Nineteenth-Century Sierra Leone’, in Liberated Africans and the Abolition of the Slave Trade, 1807-1896, eds. Richard Anderson and Henry B. Lovejoy (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2020), chapter 2.

Tracing the lives of Africans transported in the slave trade is a major priority in current research initiatives. The ‘Freedom Narratives’ website includes ‘the testimonies and stories of individuals born in West Africa whose voices have long been silenced’. A related research initiative in which I have taken a leading role is the digitisation of sources containing information on the lives of the Africans released at Sierra Leone. As a result, Registers of Liberated Africans and other related sources in the Sierra Leone Public Archives can be consulted freely across the world by other researchers and by members of the public on the British Library website. A project entitled ‘Nineteenth Century Documents of the Sierra Leone Public Archives’, funded by the British Library Endangered Archives programme, has resulted in the digitisation of 194 volumes, which can be accessed through the British Library catalogue and the British Library Endangered Archives website.

The importance of teaching the history of the transatlantic slave trade has been drawn to public attention in recent months. Since my appointment at the University of Worcester in 2011, I have offered a final year history module on ‘The Atlantic Slave Trade’. This teaching, underpinned by the latest research in the field, places emphasis on tracing the attitudes that sustained the trade in the eighteenth century, as well as the impact of the trade on African lives.

Suzanne Schwarz is Professor of History, University of Worcester.

Evaluating the International Fellowship in Family Medicine

Kay Mohanna

The University of Worcester School of Allied Health and Community in conjunction with Midland Faculty of the Royal College of General Practice (RCGP) has developed, with the Postgraduate Institute of Medicine, University of Colombo, Sri Lanka, a twelve-month, post-MD International Fellowship. Its leads are me, representing the University of Worcester, and Professor Antoinette Perera of the University of Colombo.

The University of Worcester has a licence to issue up to ten annual Certficates of Sponsorship for tier five visas. To begin with, a proposal was made several years ago to the Pro Vice Chancellor for Research, Dr John Paul Wilson, to accept four Sri Lankan post-MD fellows as visiting researchers for one year, to carry out the first arm of a two-centre study (Worcester and Colombo) research project, with the aim of publication in a peer reviewed journal . This scheme does not enable General Medical Council registration but clinical attachments are provided. In the first year of the scheme these included St Richards Hospice, Worcester; Davenhill Surgery in Bromsgrove and Corbett Medical Practice in Droitwich.

A Memorandum of Understanding between the University of Worcester and the University of Colombo’s Postgraduate Institute of Medicine was signed. The latter selected the first four trainees who arrived in 2016.

Trainees are encouraged to look for training and educational opportunities which are not available in Sri Lanka and to take back that experience to further strengthen Colombo’s postgraduate programme and family medicine in general in Sri Lanka. Placements in practice aim to strengthen their capabilities as future clinic heads with knowledge of service improvement, employment, health and safety and quality assurance issues.

Colombo’s Postgraduate Institute of Medicine pays a monthly stipend to each trainee for living costs plus support for computers, books and materials as needed. It also covers travel expenses to and from the UK. The University of Worcester sends a ‘Living Certificate’ to the University of Colombo every three months to confirm satisfactory attendance and trigger this stipend. Some National Teaching Fellowship funding has been used to buy bedding and a basic ‘Welcome Pack’ of groceries on arrival. In the pilot year, the University of Worcester made no charge for the scheme or any of the teaching or included educational activities. Neither did the clinical supervisors in practice. Through the generosity of the Midland Faculty of the Royal College of General Practitioners, free attendance was given at professional development events.

An initial evaluation of the scheme was based on exit interviews with all four of the Sri Lankan GP Fellows, written reports from their clinical supervisors, regular appraisals and the trainees own written portfolios and reflective statements.

Overall the first cohort of trainees felt that the clinical placements were successful. One remarked that by ‘participating the Clinical Commissioning group meetings, Practice Quality improvement meetings and referral management meeting I got an insight about how the National Health Service UK is supervising and commissioning the UK primary care system, which is lagging in Sri Lankan setup.’ Another said that ‘I, with my other colleagues got the opportunity to visit the RCGP head office in Euston Square London and meet and discuss matters pertaining to our training and its future
developments, with the RCGP international chair, which I think is my duty to uplift the Family Medicine in Sri Lanka.’

The President of the College of GPs in Sri Lanka, Dr Carmel Fernandopulle, has written to the RCGP president Dr Terry Kemple, commending the Worcester scheme. Trainees have met the President, the Chair of International Committee and the Head of RCGP International who are all now aware of the difficulty faced by Sri Lankan GPs wishing to become consultants in their own country by accessing overseas experience. The Chair of the Sri Lankan College of GPs visited London during the pilot year to approach the RCGP.

There is a long way to go before the regulations about the recognition and GMC registration of international doctors in general practice can be addressed in law, but the success of this programme is part of the case being made by the RCGP.

Since the pilot we have had a total of ten Fellows who have each attended for a year and they have been mostly attached to my practice, the Darwin Medical Practice in Lichfield, thanks to the support of my partners. Research projects have included optimising wound care, factors associated with exacerbations of COPD and ‘belongness’ in GP education. The most recent Fellow was recalled at the start of the present global pandemic by the Sri Lankan government along with all UK based Sri Lankan training Fellows, to join with their COVID response. Two more are awaiting COVID induced changes to international travel to make an application to come to the University of Worcester. Following their year in the UK all of the Fellows have received promotions to Consultant in General Practice and taken up positions as clinic leads. The project has also resulted in an article published in the British Journal of General Practice with another to follow shortly.

Kay Mohanna is Professor of Values Based Healthcare Education, University of Worcester.

International Conferences on Slavery and Race

Professor Suzanne Schwarz presented a paper and was part of a discussion panel at the Maghrib Conference on Race, Gender and Migration, Fes, Morocco between 15 and 17 December 2019. The conference, held in honour of  Catherine Coquery-Vidrovich, Professor Emeritus at the University of Paris-Diderot, was organised by the Center for Maghrib Studies at Arizona State University. It was hosted by Morocco’s International Institute for Languages and Cultures (INLAC), and sponsored by the Centre International de Recherches sur les Esclavages et Post-Esclavages and L’Unité de Recherche Migrations et Société.

Professor Schwarz was part of an international discussion panel on the ARTE film on Les Routes de L’Esclavage (Slavery Routes) with Catherine Coquery-Vidrovich, Klara Boyer-Rossol, Salah Trabelsi (Université Lumière Lyon 2), and Chouki El Hamel (Arizona State University).  Slavery Routes is a documentary in four parts, co-directed by Daniel Cattier, Juan Gélas and Fanny Glissant, with historical advisor Catherine Coquery-Vidrovitch. Suzanne Schwarz was interviewed for this series, which has been screened widely, including on Al Jazeera in 2018. She also presented a paper entitled, ‘Reinterpreting Cultural Encounters: European mariners in Morocco in the Late Eighteenth Century’, which analysed the contemporary accounts of a number of European mariners who experienced captivity in the Maghrib.

In March 2020, Professor Schwarz participated in an international online conference. The two-day conference entitled ‘Documenting Africans in Trans-Atlantic Slavery (DATAS)’ was due to be held at the University of Essex, but was moved online. The conference brought together 25 international participants from Canada, North America, Brazil, Costa Rica, France and various other European countries. This was the first in a series of planned conferences for the international research team engaged in the project: ‘Documenting Africans in Trans-Atlantic Slavery (DATAS)’, ( This research team is led by Paul E. Lovejoy, Distinguished Research Professor and Canada Research Chair in African Diaspora Studies at York University, Toronto. After submitting a successful bid for a collaborative research project to the ‘Trans-Atlantic Platform Social Innovation Call’, the team subsequently received funding from the Trans-Atlantic Platform: Social Sciences and Humanities. The DATAS project ‘develops an innovative method to explore African ethnonyms from the era of trans-Atlantic slavery, circa 1500-1867. Ethnonyms index African identities, places and historical events to reconstruct African culture that is linked to a history of slavery, colonialism and racism. The project centres on the need to understand the origins and trajectories of people of African descent who populated the trans-Atlantic world in the modern era. The development of a method for analysing demographic change and confronting social inequalities arising from racism constitutes a social innovation’. Tracing the availability of relevant archival sources about African men, women and children is central to this project, and Professor Schwarz presented a paper entitled ‘Research on Sierra Leone: British Library Endangered Archives Project, Sierra Leone Public Archives’.

The Second World War, VJ Day and Imperial Amnesia

Neil Fleming

Even with the cancellation of public commemorations marking the 75th anniversary of both VE Day and VJ Day, the former remains larger in the national consciousness. Indeed, this year, during the global health crisis resulting from the coronavirus, VE Day was held by some to possess a special resonance with its message of triumph over adversity.

Why not VJ Day? There could be a number of explanations. The war in Europe was physically much closer to home, as was the threat posed by Great Britain’s main adversary, Nazi Germany. The bulk of Britain’s defence forces were concentrated in the European theatre. The war in the Pacific was dominated by the United States. And it was the Americans who brought it to a conclusion by introducing a new and highly destructive weapon that confirmed its economic, scientific and technological superiority over the old powers, including the United Kingdom.

Whatever the reason, the tendency to focus on VE Day, which did not represent the end of the Second World War, rather than VJ Day, which did, is partly bound up with ‘imperial amnesia’. In focussing largely on the conflict (and its conclusion) in Europe, it becomes possible to forget about the vital assistance given to Britain during the war by millions of people in its far-flung colonies. It also means ignoring the difficult relationships and tensions between the British and their colonial subjects. It must be said that contemporaries understood that it was the British empire that was at war with the Japanese empire. It was an idea drummed into them by the wartime government, not least the prime minister, Winston Churchill.

The explanations for imperial amnesia are several. The fact that the empire was largely decolonised by the late 1960s is an obvious explanation. The reluctance of schools and museums to tackle the subject is another. There is wariness too of doing anything that has the potential to glorify or excuse imperialism; this has certainly served as a restraint on public commemoration in many former colonies.

However well-meaning, ‘imperial amnesia’ has had unintended consequences. In the 1960s, opponents of non-white immigration to the UK claimed that the Welfare State was meant to reward the nation’s wartime sacrifice, and that it was therefore unfair that South Asian, Caribbean, and African immigrants also benefitted. As historians demonstrate, the significant expansion of welfare after 1945 was not a ‘reward’ but a means of addressing the urgent need for post-war reconstruction. It was also a direct response to the intractable economic and social problems that had scarred communities across the UK in the 1920s and 1930s.

Rather than late comers, imperial networks of employment and trade meant that non-white communities had been present in Britain for several centuries. They were often subjected to racism, such as the infamous 1919 ‘race riots’, but their established presence in the country meant that they were an integral part of the UK’s war effort in 1939-45. Moreover, almost as many non-white men as white men volunteered to serve in the ‘British’ armed services during the war. By far the largest contingent came from British India (present day India, Pakistan and Bangladesh), though Africans and West Indians also enlisted in significant numbers.

Indeed, in the wake of the recent ‘Windrush scandal’, it is worth recalling that many of those on board the Empire Windrush in 1948 were Jamaican ex-servicemen. As such, they had already experienced living in wartime Britain and they were not alone. Lesser known examples include the hundreds of Caribbean workers in British munitions factories, and the almost thousand-strong workforce of Honduran foresters stationed across Scotland.

It is also important to recall the wartime role of Muslims, especially as Britain’s Muslim community is today the target of extreme right-wing groups that have appropriated iconic imagery associated with the Second World War. As Muslim leaders have asked, why is it not better known that over a million Muslims volunteered to serve in the armed forces of the British empire, just as an equally large number had served in the First World War?

Wartime mobilisation involved far more than recruiting soldiers, sailors and airmen. Civilian work was vitally important, in agriculture, industry and transport, and women and men were mobilised across the empire to keep the wheels of production turning. Canada’s role in the Atlantic convoys is still remembered in Britain, but almost completely forgotten is the presence on board many British-registered ships of large numbers of South Asian and African sailors.

In relaying all of this it is important not to replace one myth with another. It is true that the British empire was more cohesive in its response to the war than some had previously predicted. But there were still tensions between Britain and the self-governing ‘dominions’—Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand—over wartime strategy and organisation. More significantly, the image of a united front was undermined by nationalist opposition to participation in the conflict. The Indian National Congress chose to boycott the war effort despite being sympathetic to its aims. It was frustrated that Indian politicians had not been consulted by the British before putting their country’s vast resources on a war footing, despite years of reassurances that India was moving towards self-government. Ireland (excepting Northern Ireland, which remained part of the UK), had become a dominion in 1922, and during the 1939-45 ‘Emergency’ it determinedly demonstrated its sovereignty by remaining neutral.

These examples of nationalist opposition were not completely effective. 43,000 Irish citizens joined the British forces, including deserters from the Irish army, and many Irish women and men moved to Britain to perform civilian war work. In the case of India, a staggering 2¼ million men served in the armed forces, playing a crucial strategic role in South Asia, the Middle East, and the Far East.

The motives of volunteer recruits and war workers varied, from the need to escape poverty to seeking a new life. But not everyone was a volunteer. In Nigeria and Tanganyika (part of present-day Tanzania), the colonial authorities were so determined to extract certain resources that they used techniques of forced labour.

As this suggests, racism remained a marked feature of the British empire despite waging a war against the Nazis. There was nevertheless some progress. The ‘colour bar’ preventing non-white men serving as commissioned officers was removed in October 1939. Non-white participation in legislatures was advanced in Nigeria, the Gold Coast (present day Ghana) and British Guiana (present day Guyana). In 1944 Jamaica was granted a House of Representatives elected on a universal franchise. Still, these latter developments should not disguise the fact that the British were determined to remain in control of the pace of constitutional reform; that they were willing, during the war and for almost two decades after it, to use coercion in resisting those actively challenging their authority.

That determination reminds us that the Second World War did not herald the end of the British empire, at least not immediately. The independence granted to India and Pakistan in 1947 was part of a process of constitutional reform dating back to 1919. The displacement of Britain during the war by the United States, especially in the Caribbean and Pacific, reflected the shifting balance of global power, but it did not eliminate completely Britain’s influence in either region.

‘Imperial amnesia’ is understandable given that racism, violence, and oppression were features of imperialism. Equally, a determination to avoid repeating Europe’s destructive wars has encouraged precious habits of reconciliation and cooperation among former foes. Yet, it has meant that Victory in Europe Day looms larger in the British imagination than Victory over Japan Day, despite most of those fighting in the service of George VI (as King, or for his Indian soldiers, as Emperor) having to carry on until the Japanese surrender in August 1945. If this preference for VE Day over VJ Day is unlikely to change, let us hope that Britain’s multicultural society can at least remember that Asian, African, and Caribbean men and women contributed to the victory marked this year.


Neil Fleming is Principal Lecturer in Modern History, University of Worcester. He is the author of Britannia’s Zealots, Volume I: Tradition, Empire and the Forging of the Conservative Right (Bloomsbury Academic, 2019), and co-editor of Histories, Memories and Representations of being Young in the First World War (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020).

Prejudices and Priorities in a Previous Global Pandemic – Spanish Flu in the West Midlands

Maggie Andrews

Scientific research and understanding often follow pandemics; viruses were identified in 1933, more than 10 years after what is now commonly referred to as the Spanish Flu. In the face of uncertainty and partial knowledge, government decisions and popular perceptions just over a hundred years ago were shaped by cultural and political preoccupations, prejudices and already existing priorities. Scientists estimate that between 1917 and 1920 a quarter of the world’s population were infected by the Spanish Flu; between 50 and 100 million of them died.

In the West Midlands, the first cases appeared in April 1918. Britain was war-weary, from nearly four years of conflict; there was little hope of an end to the stalemate on the Western Front and the Germans were poised to retake Passchendaele. Those on the home front were struggling to cope with the death and disruption caused by men fighting in foreign fields, alongside Zeppelins and aeroplanes bombing Britain. Housewives battled to feed their families as food shortages led to price rises, food queues and finally the introduction of rationing in 1918.  At a national and local level winning the war was prioritised, concern about the influenza focused on how it compromised war production or the health of soldiers required for battle. Many in the Army Medical Corps considered that they had more pressing medical issues than flu, which was often seen in derisory terms as a mild complaint, compared to sepsis, gangrene, lice and enteric fevers. During this initial wave of the pandemic, which abated by late July, newspapers, doctors, propaganda and politicians conveyed the message that ordinary people should either ignore it, smile through the threat of illness, or take care of themselves. The Birmingham Mail reassured its readers that ‘fortunately the disease is not of a virulent type, carrying with it any actual danger’. Mortality figures suggest otherwise.

By early autumn 1918, a more lethal strain of the flu had arrived, lasting until the end of December. In November, as the guns of battle fell silent, Dr Masbyn Read, the Medical Officer of Health in Worcester, reassured the local population that although there had been 41 deaths from influenza in the city the previous week the ‘disease is past its worst’. The local press, however, noted that the disease was still widespread in Evesham and Stourport. Over 1,500 cases were reported in Kidderminster, which was considered to be particularly badly hit. Many workers were absent from the carpet and spinning mills in the town. There was a shortage of comics in Worcester, purchased to keep sick children amused when confined to bed. Despite demands made for theatres and cinemas to be closed or more tightly regulated, they were used to give the public information about preventing the spread of the disease, including the infamous film Dr Wise and a Foolish Patient. Schools were closed in some areas for 2 or 3 weeks, occasionally longer, despite anxiety that children running around the streets unsupervised would spread the disease.

Despite the Armistice, the war was not officially over until the Versailles peace treaty was signed on 28 June 1919, with the result that Germany continued to be blockaded and the British government was slow to release the doctors and nurses in the armed forces that were needed to combat the disease and care for the sick. Many doctors and medical students had volunteered for the forces and in early 1918 the government had raised the call up age for doctors to 55. Although elderly doctors were encouraged to return to practice, the number of doctors able to minister to patients in the West Midlands was heavily depleted. Doctors were run off their feet as were undertakers and vicars. Long queues were seen at chemist shops, people consumed lethal doses of aspirin. Charlatans made spurious claims and significant profits for patent products such as Dr William’s Pill for Pale People. Consumers were requested not to hoard Bovril, thought to prevent or at least aid recovery from the flu. The failure to release undertakers and grave diggers from the forces in late November 1918, or to make stocks of whisky (considered a cure) freely available, were widely criticized. A government with one priority – in this case winning the war – could not quickly change course and marshal resources to deal with another. Nevertheless, by late November, as the general election campaign got underway, soldiers in Britain were deployed to help dig graves and whisky could be obtained with a letter of recommendation from a doctor.

In European history and memory, the devastating consequences of the pandemic have often been either eclipsed by or entwined with the death and injury caused by the First World War. In all continents the flu was responsible for many more deaths than war and it was particularly devastating in India. In Britain approximately 850,000 were killed in armed combat whilst 240,000 died from the virus, although diagnosis was not always reliable. A unique feature of this pandemic was that it disproportionately affected younger adults; the peak age of death was 28. Thus, for many ordinary people like Mr and Mrs Slade Nash of Martley, Worcestershire, influenza was yet another element of the misery and sorrow that warfare inflicted upon their lives. They had already lost two sons in the war when their daughter Margaret died from influenza in October 1918.

Whilst the First World War did not cause the pandemic, the mobility of people in wartime (shifting between countries or regions) helped to spread the Influenza. The Spanish Flu is now understood to have originated in Kansas in the USA, and was brought to Europe by soldiers sailing across the Atlantic to fight on the Western Front. As a neutral country Spain was not subject to the censorship other countries had experienced, and freely reported on the progress of the disease, particularly when King Alfonso XIII and members of his government became unwell, and people came to associate the disease with Spain. The Times noted on 18 December 1918 that once the disease had reached London it radiated out through Birmingham, Nottingham and other major centers via the rail networks. Public activities, schools, factories, churches, cinemas, theatres and public transport and Armistice Day celebrations all helped to spread the virus. Soldiers on the battlefronts, on leave, in training or prisoner of war camps, in hospitals, or when demobilised, were efficient carriers of influenza.

In the absence of any genuine scientific understanding of viruses and how the influenza actually spread, multiple different explanations and theories emerged, shaped by prevailing cultural prejudices, xenophobia and class prejudice. The Birmingham Daily Post pointed out in June 1918 ‘the man in the street … is sometimes inclined to believe it is really a form of pro-German influence’.  The ‘unseen hand’ of the enemy was supposed to be spreading the illness. A quarter of a million Germans died from disease, nevertheless for some who were hyper-patriotic the link between germs and Germans was very close and a number of nicknames emerged for the virus that embodied this prejudice including ‘Flanders Grippe’, ‘Hun flu’, and the ‘Turco-Germanic bacterial criminal enterprise’. Soldiers writing from the front or visiting Britain on leave or to convalesce also conveyed rumours that the heart of this ‘German plague’ lay in the unburied corpses on the battlefields or the German’s use of poison gas.

The sense that the conditions of war, exhaustion, war weariness, and food shortages precepted the spread of the disease had more credibility, but was again laced with a touch of anti-German feeling. Thus, the Birmingham Daily Post argued in 25 June, ‘There can be no doubt whatever that it has been recurring in a very severe form in Germany, Austria, and the territories occupied by the Central Powers during the last two years.’ Those who were not convinced that the flu was the intentional work of the enemy powers often perceived it as an unintentional consequence of war and the arrival of groups of workers or troops from abroad. The French blamed the Spanish and in particular the Spanish workers who replaced French men who had joined the armed forces, whilst the Spanish singled out the Portuguese for culpability. The Germans apparently suggested that the flu had been imported by the 100,000 men who worked behind the lines, assisting the Allies in France, as part of the Chinese Labour Corps.

Other explanations for the Influenza included: the wartime propensity to dig up the land to grow more food, poor housing, and dirt. The Medical Officer of Health in Worcester long maintained that combatting this disease was a ‘purely a personal matter’ and that the spread was ‘due to the carelessness of individuals’. Newspapers warned against overcrowding, indiscriminate spitting and alcoholism and encouraged thorough cleaning of houses and whitewashing walls. Cultural assumptions and prejudices towards densely populated working-class areas of industrial cities was not however supported by evidence; influenza was a remarkably democratic illness. The Evesham Journal pointed out on 2 November that ‘All classes of the community are affected, and it appears to take an even more virulent form with the apparently hale and hearty.’ In the village of Badsey, where locals and 200 German prisoners of war worked on the land, the virus was rife.

This swirling mishmash of explanations, rumours, accusations and assumptions about the flu did have two positive longer-term influences. They added weight to arguments for the setting up of the Ministry of Health in 1918 and for slum clearances and the building of working-class housing in the inter-war years across the region from Birmingham to Tewkesbury.


The material in this blog is drawn from Maggie Andrews and Emma Edwards, Bovril, Whisky and a Shortage of Gravediggers: The Spanish Flu comes to the West Midlands (History West Midlands, 2019).

Professor Kay Mohanna’s Australian Collaboration

Griffith University, in Queensland, Australia, recently welcomed Kay Mohanna, Professor of Values based Healthcare Education at the University of Worcester.

Professor Mohanna visited the Griffith Institute for Educational Research on 24 February 2020 to begin consolidating plans for a collaborative, inter-disciplinary project with Dr Jeanne Allen, Associate Professor of Teacher Education, and a team of Griffith researchers. Kay and Jeanne also met with Dr Leonie Rowan, acting Director of the Griffiths Institute and Associate Professor of Education, to discuss the project, which will be framed within the politics of belonging and investigate the development of a sense of belonging and professional identity among the increasingly mobile student population in higher education.

Dr Allen is a co-editor of the Asia-Pacific Journal of Teacher Education, which publishes research that advances knowledge in teacher education across early childhood, primary, secondary, vocational education and training, and higher education. Her work with Kay builds on their previous research on students’ expectations and experiences in internationalised and globalised higher education (Kay is on the editorial board for Education for Primary Care, which aims to support the implementation of best-evidence medical education relevant to primary care). Their previous work includes a 2013 article in Educational Theory and Practice.

Through this link with the Griffith Institute for Educational Research, Professor Mohanna is working with is one of the largest concentrations of university-based education researchers in Australia. It comprises a vibrant community of scholars whose applied research with industry partners, education systems, schools, community and not-for-profit organisations is done with the aim of translating it into practice. The Institute has identified key research foci that include, but are not limited to, leadership, living with autism, and professional and practice-based learning. It identifies Research Programs based on evidence of current, successful research, led by five esteemed senior researchers who are also mindful of new intellectual projects that can drive their endeavours to the next level of productivity and reputation.

Initially this collaboration will carry out a scoping review of the literature. This will look at the implications of the globalized movement of people, ideas and capital including how international students navigate multiple types of borders in ways that can exacerbate their experiences of marginalization and development of belongingness.

British Press Perceptions of the 1857–58 ‘Indian Mutiny’

Arran Jenkins

In 1963 the skull of an Indian man was discovered in a small pub in Kent. Folded and pushed inside one of its eye sockets was a scribbled note that revealed he was called Alum Bheg and that he had lived over a century ago in India. He had met his end, like many others, when he was blown from a cannon for his alleged involvement in an attack on a British resident family. Bheg’s skull was a war trophy taken during a mutiny of sepoys, or native soldiers, that began in the ancient city of Meerut on 10 May 1857 and soon erupted into a wider conflict that engulfed an estimated one sixth of the East India Company’s (EIC) territory in India.

The revolt lasted fourteen months and its implications sent shockwaves through the martial and civil spheres in India. It also reverberated throughout British society. To see evidence of this we need look no further than the rivers of ink spilled in newspaper coverage. The numerous editorials, opinion articles and letters from the public that appeared in national and regional publications, such as The Times and Berrow’s Worcester Journal, expose a multifaceted debate revolving around the 1857 Uprising that touched upon such disparate topics as the shortcomings of the EIC, the character of the Indian people and the loyalty of Catholic soldiers. Capital punishment was another recurring topic and it is the focus of this piece.

Contemporary newspapers viewed the ‘mutiny’ as an event of great importance which attracted widespread attention in Britain. Such interest is likely to have been based more on familial than fiscal ties. The 30,000 British soldiers—and the family members that they brought with them—were comprised of people from a variety of backgrounds. And they maintained connections to their homeland. In July 1857, for example, there were over 20,000 letters sent home by settlers that described the startling events then unfolding across India and these were frequently published in British newspapers. In this way, the mutiny managed to reach many people in the United Kingdom and is one of the means by which the events scarred the national consciousness.

This resounded in British literature for decades, with related themes appearing in novels such as A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens and E.M. Foster’s A Passage to India. An infiltration of ideas such as racial superiority and inherent ‘otherness’ into fictional works reveals the subtle ways in which the crisis affected the public psyche. The earliest histories produced narratives that were concerned with military battles and heroic acts. These largely cooperated with the colonial project rather than undermined it: some were even published before the rebellion was comprehensively crushed. Historicizing an event so swiftly is at least one indication of imperial arrogance. Nonetheless, reactions to the uprising largely defy generalisation.

What historians might term an ‘imperial’ narrative of events existed, but this did not go undisputed. In particular, that this was merely a tale of religious prejudices inflamed by the introduction of greased cartridges was never believed to be the only cause by all contemporary commentators. Many were able to trace the grievances of the rebels to a multitude of misjudged policies instigated years previously by the EIC, a once powerful organisation now in its death throes. The press did not tenderly ease its passing. Numerous past procedures of the EIC came in for criticism, reflecting long-held anxieties within Britain about merchants acting in the role of a state. The EIC was thus the primary target in the hunt for an adequate cause. This hunt was initiated by concern for British enterprise in India but lingered in the public discourse because of the rebels’ violent actions committed against British residents. A fierce reaction was sparked from the home press. From early on in the crisis, The Times, Glasgow Herald and Berrow’s Journal were demanding the blood of anyone considered culpable in the murder of British women and children. This sullying of the purest symbols of Victorian domesticity was proposed by The Times as an effort to ‘dishonour England itself’.

Wendy Webster demonstrates how this concept of domesticity being under siege also resonated in accounts of post-1945 colonial conflicts. Just as ideas of ‘white’ domesticity were shaken by fears of ‘black’ disloyalty during the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya, the sepoy mutiny tainted a perceived paternal relationship on both a micro level—between a British officer and the sepoys—and a macro level between Britain and India. So much so that the popular illustrated newspaper, Punch, mocked the notion of a filial relationship forwarded by earlier thinkers like James Mill, with a cartoon that depicted the ‘Clement’ Governor-General Canning patting the head of a child-sized sepoy clasping a bloodied sabre.

The lampooning of those considered too merciful by many in the press is set against a context of progressive debate about the utilisation of capital punishment in Victorian society. Pro-abolitionists had made great strides with several government acts in the 1830s; reducing the amount of capital crimes by 66 per cent and by 1841 execution was only carried out for treason and homicide. By 1857 however there was a clear contradiction in contemporary discourse between the civilised, forward-looking Englishman and the blood-thirsty sensationalist Englishman, addicted to retribution as a means of revenge. The Times suggested that after an ‘immense amount of humanity’, with the reform of the penal code, there appears to be a ‘new phase of the British character to find a general consent in favour of strong measures in the East.’ Understood by some as a repressed retributive spirit connected to the teachings of the Old Testament, the Indian uprising was an episode that led to its resurgence in popular culture throwing into question the constructed identity of British civility.

Ultimately, the revolt failed to knock loose the jewel from the imperial crown. Yet, it is a testament to the sheer depth of the impact that it had on the people of the United Kingdom and India—political, social, cultural and intellectual—that it is still recognised as a landmark event in both these country’s histories.


Arran Jenkins is a History graduate of the University of Worcester. His final year Independent Study, examining the British press and the Indian Uprising, won the Stanford History Group Prize for Best Independent Study in History.

Witch-Hunts Past and Present

Darren Oldridge

President Donald Trump is perhaps the most famous and certainly the most outspoken recent victim of an alleged ‘witch-hunt.’ But he is by no means alone. In the last few years, other supposed victims of the phenomenon have included Hillary Clinton and several prominent members of the British Labour Party. Since at least the 1950s the language of ‘witch-hunting’ has played a role in public life, and its usefulness to politicians of all stripes means that it continues to thrive.

Like all modern victims of a ‘witch-hunt’, Trump uses the term to impute the motives and methods of his opponents. Witch-hunts are invariably wicked and unfair. To be accused is to be innocent; to pursue a witch is to act maliciously, hysterically or unjustly, and often all three of these at once.

As a historian of witchcraft I am wary of these connotations. While they illustrate modern-day perceptions of the past, they are a poor guide to the world in which real people suspected of harmful magic and compacts with evil spirits were once put on trial, and sometimes executed.  Indeed, our own language of witch-hunting is an impediment to understanding that world.

So how does today’s idea of a ‘witch-hunt’ compare to the historical record? The criminal prosecution of witches took place from the later 1400s until the early eighteenth century, and was responsible for around 50,000 deaths. The modern image of a witch-hunt corresponds most closely to the mass trials that occurred sporadically in this period, and especially in German-speaking lands. These could consume whole communities with dreadful speed, as happened in Trier in the 1580s and Würzburg in 1629.

Such events were mercifully rare. It was far more common for individuals or small groups of people to be accused, and in many cases they were probably not brought to trial. When they were, their treatment varied considerably from region to region, and was not always severe. In England, for example, only around a quarter of those formally accused of the crime were executed.

It was not the case, then, that to accuse a person of witchcraft was automatically to condemn them to death. In this respect the modern understanding of ‘witch-hunts’ misrepresents the past. Indeed, the majority of witchcraft cases cannot be viewed as hunts at all.

Nor were the people who dealt with witchcraft typically characterised by ulterior motives or disrespect for justice. Indeed, the occult nature of the offence meant that careful discrimination was required in its prosecution. Many experts on the subject, like the English physician and demonologist John Cotta and the Massachusetts pastor Increase Mather, argued for judicial caution in the face of a crime that was undeniably serious but difficult to prove.

Behind these observations is a deeper issue about belief. This is the fundamental difference between the fear of witchcraft in the past and the modern use of the term. Two core assumptions drove the witch trials in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries: first and most commonly, witches were believed to harm others through the use of magic; and secondly, and of less importance to ordinary people, they were held to serve the Devil. In the most extreme version of this latter idea, witches were believed to fly to nocturnal assemblies where they committed atrocities and worshipped the Prince of Darkness.

Today very few people in the west believe in magic, and the concept is most familiar as either a metaphor or a kind of entertainment.  (And stage magic, of course, is expected to deceive.)  As a result, the most widely feared form of witchcraft in the past – the practice of destructive sorcery – is simply incredible.

What of the Devil? Here there are interesting international variations. A major survey in 1982 found that only 21% of the UK population believed that he existed; this had dropped to 10% by 2016. In contrast, a poll in 2005 found that 60% of Americans believed in the ancient enemy. This pattern reflects a more general difference in the prevalence of religious belief between western Europe and the USA. Interestingly, belief in God tends to be higher than belief in his adversary wherever the question is asked.

It may be hasty to declare the death of Satan. But it is true, nonetheless, that he is not an integral and uncontested part of the intellectual landscape of western communities, as he was in the age of witch trials. Nor is he connected to the practice of evil magic that is believed to cause real harm.

The modern use of the phrase ‘witch-hunt’ reflects this situation. As we no longer share the beliefs that once underpinned the crime of witchcraft, we find it hard to accept the crime at face value. We struggle to imagine the witch of the pre-modern world, whom people perceived as a figure of real menace. Conversely, we find it easy to assume that witch trials were impelled by ulterior motives. Typically, these include vindictiveness or greed, combined with a willing disregard for justice.

The current language of ‘witch-hunting’, then, indicates our own separation from the historical world of witch trials rather than the revival of pre-modern practices. (In some other, non-political contexts the parallels between past and present may be stronger.  Contemporary allegations of ‘ritual satanic abuse,’ for example, echo the early modern idea of the witches’ Sabbath. But that is another story.)

Ultimately, we have projected our own explanations onto the experience of those men and women who feared witchcraft in the past, recasting them as malicious or ‘hysterical’, and invariably unjust.  It is this version of the past – born of our profound separation from it – that underpins today’s talk of ‘witch-hunts’.


Darren Oldridge is Professor of Early Modern History at the University of Worcester. His most recent book is The Supernatural in Tudor and Stuart England (London & New York: Routledge, 2016), and he is currently writing a study of English demonology.