Name: Dr Padraic X. Scanlan, Assistant Professor of International History
Role in admissions: Undergraduate Admissions Tutor
What is your field of history?
I work on the history of Britain and the British empire in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, especially on the histories of slavery and emancipation. One of the things about studying slavery is that – even you have a particular national or regional focus – you are also a global historian. The history of slavery is incomprehensible without a very wide lens trained on the histories of commerce, colonialism, economic life, finance, industrialisation, and cultural exchange. It can be grim work, but the dignity and resistance of enslaved people in the face of a trans-historically evil system of violence and capital accumulation is astonishing and inspiring, and visible even in dusty archives. Recently, I’ve been working on the history of the abolition of the British slave trade. For the past few years, I’ve been trying to answer some deceptively simple questions that haven’t been posed often enough: Once Britain banned the slave trade in 1807, how was the ban enforced? How did the practices of enforcement change how people thought about slavery and emancipation? How did British officials take apart an industry that was so entrenched and so profitable? I’m putting the finishing touches on my answers to those questions in my first book, MacCarthy’s Skull: Anti-Slavery and Empire in Sierra Leone (under contract with Yale University Press). Sierra Leone’s early history gives a very different perspective on the history of British abolitionism. Ending the slave trade did not end slavery, and it also gave colonial officials a license to claim a lot of power over the lives of formerly enslaved people. Lately, I’ve started work on my next research project, a study of the ways British imperial officials measured ‘civilisation.’ In all my research, I’m interested in the history of everyday life. I try to understand the past by reconstructing and explaining how individual people experienced global phenomena.
How did you first become interested in this subject?
I was born and grew up in Montréal, Québec, Canada. Montréal is a city shaped in profound ways by both the British and French empires. At McGill University, I earned a BA in History. While at McGill, I became interested in British radical politics in the late eighteenth century. When I started my postgraduate work, at Princeton University, I focused on one of the most lasting radical movements of the 1790s, the movement to end the British slave trade. What fascinated me then – and still does – is the tension between the revolutionary idea of ending slavery and the profoundly conservative attitudes of many of the leaders of the abolitionist movement. Anti-slavery could only be successful, it seems, when it expressed itself in an idiom friendly to the wealthy and powerful. Studying the international history of the British empire has given me a chance to follow that question, of what it meant to be ‘free,’ to archives around the world.
Why is it important to take an international perspective in studying history?
I’m not sure that it is possible to study history without an international perspective. As historians, we try to describe and explain the context and meaning of the past, and we try to plot change over time. The world is always in motion. People routinely disrupt, ignore, and redraw national borders, and always have. Commerce, disease, ecology, technology, and ideology also stubbornly refuse to respect borders. Studying international history means trying to understand the connections, conflicts and exchanges between people, and between governments. In an age of rapidly accelerating communication and exchange, it is incredibly valuable to understand that globalisation – and the idea of a globalised world – has a long history.
Do you study history in order to understand the present?
Historical methods of research and writing are powerful and portable intellectual tools that can be applied to the study of the present. However, if I could scrub one aphorism out of the English language, it would be: ‘Those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it.’ History is not a tool for predicting the future, and it isn’t a cautionary tale. Moreover, history doesn’t stand outside of time – the kinds of questions historians ask are shaped by their own lives and experiences. Instead, history teaches us that the world is always more complicated than it seems; that nothing is simple, and that even the ‘ordinary’ is complex. The structures that shape, enable and constrain our lives in the present are all open to historical analysis. Historians sift through manuscripts, ledgers, receipts, books, housewares, architecture, artworks, archaeological data – anything and everything from the past that survives in the present – in order construct narratives and arguments. Consequently, history is always open to revision; there are always paths not taken through the archive, waiting for anyone with the interest and initiative to revisit them.
What should a prospective student in International History at the LSE be reading?
Prospective students should follow their curiosity about the past wherever it might lead; the list below isn’t exhaustive or definitive. These are examples of the kinds of books you might read while a student of International History at the LSE.
To get a sense of what historians do, and why it matters, you might try John Lewis Gaddis’ The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past (2004) or Richard J. Evans, In Defence of History (2001). For an introduction to the major themes and debates in global history, I recommend Christopher Bayly, The Birth of the Modern World (2004) or Eric Hobsbawm’s trilogy, The Age of Revolution: Europe: 1789–1848 (1962), The Age of Capital: 1848–1875 (1975), and The Age of Empire: 1875–1914 (1987). I’d also recommend Dominic Lieven’s Empire: The Russian Empire and its Rivals (2000), John Darwin’s After Tamerlane: The Global History of Empire (2007), or Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper’s Empires in World History: Power and the Politics of Difference (2010). Other innovative titles that might whet your appetite for the course include Matthew Restall’s Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest (2003), Timothy Brook’s, Vermeer's Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World (2008), Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton: A New History of Global Capitalism (2014), Pekka Hämäläinen’s The Comanche Empire (2008) and James Scott’s Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (1999). In my own subject, the history of slavery and freedom, Walter Johnson’s Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market (2001) and Willie Lee Rose’s Rehearsal for Reconstruction: The Port Royal Experiment (1976) are innovative, accessible and deeply influential.
The best historians combine their curiosity with careful reflection about what they know, and how they know it. In order to get a taste of what it is like write history with self-conscious attention to method, I don’t think there is a better one-two punch of listening and reading than the first series of WBEZ-Chicago’s smash hit podcast Serial (2014) and the great cultural historian Natalie Zemon Davis’ Fiction in the Archive: Pardon Tales and Their Tellers in Sixteenth-Century France (1987). Both the podcast series and the book are about people convicted of murder telling the story of their innocence, and both works engage deeply not only in reconstructing the past, but also in transparently and carefully explaining the editorial choices, hunches, and leaps in logic that go into that work of reconstruction. The podcast is about the history of a murder in Baltimore in 1999, the book is about the history of about an archive of pleas for royal pardons in sixteenth-century France – but taken together, they make for a compelling look at how historians select and interpret evidence, and the volatility of what we think we know about the past.
Would you be happy for prospective students to be in touch with you?
Yes, please do – I’ll do my best to answer any questions you might have. (firstname.lastname@example.org)