I am very passionate about American history, but when I try and explain this to family friends or work colleagues, I am usually met by the same response – “what history? They only have 250 years don’t they?” The more I hear it, the more I think about the origins of America and how “old” their country is. If you declare that America only has 250 years of history, you are looking through a very narrow, European lens. If we take this angle, American history began with the Declaration of Independence in 1776. But what were the origins of this? Why did it happen? And perhaps a more practical question, how did people arrive there? The history of one country does not start with a great political event. After all, the colonists did not suddenly appear there in the late eighteenth century. Settlers arrived in Jamestown in 1607, and some travelled to the New World as early as the 1580’s. So, from this angle, a “Western” view of American history stretches back nearly five hundred years. Yet, we must go back even further. The Native Americans have been living on the continent for thousands of years; a trip to any of the Native museums proves this. In the summer, I travelled to Utah and visited the Edge of the Cedars State Park and Museum. The Park contains ruins of an Ancestral Puebloan site, dating from at least AD 825, while human activity in Hovenweep (South-eastern Utah) can be traced to over 10,000 years ago. This prehistory seems to be ignored. To say America has no history, or even ‘culture’, insults the hundreds of Native Americans who live there. We should move away from the idea that history is solely about politics, or even ‘recorded’ history. The concept of “America” as we know it may be relatively new, but the history of native peoples living on the American continent cannot be overlooked.
Saturday, 24 December 2011
Since the summer I have written historical walking tours for an iPhone app called Rama. It’s a fantastic resource – it guides you around a specific area, accompanied by archival photographs showing how it would have looked a hundred years ago. For my first tour, I wrote about the history of the Statue of Liberty, and during my research, I came across the fascinating story of a previous terrorist attack. The Black Tom Island Explosion occurred in Liberty Park, New Jersey in 1916, an area that can be seen from Liberty Island. At the time, the land was owned by the Lehigh Valley Railroad Company, and housed several warehouses containing ammunition, particularly during World War One. Between midnight and two in the morning on the 20th July, fires began to erupt around the pier, eventually leading to the first explosion that caused shrapnel to blast from the island and hit the Statue of Liberty. Windows over 25 miles away were smashed, immigrants from Ellis Island were evacuated, the Brooklyn Bridge trembled, and people from Maryland and Philadelphia felt the shockwaves. It was estimated that over $20 million in damage had been caused, equivalent in today’s money of over $402 million. Repairs on the torch and Liberty’s dress totalled over $100,000; Liberty’s torch was closed, and has not been reopened since. Over forty people were killed and several hundred were injured. Initially, two watchmen were arrested, the New Jersey Police believing they had accidentally started the fires, but eventually they identified an arsonist - Michael Kristoff, an immigrant from Slovakia. The plot thickened however, as two German agents in the 1930’s confessed to starting the fires, although further investigations proved inconclusive. Ultimately, the Lehigh Valley Railroad Company believed the German government to be responsible, arguing that German terrorism was to blame and they should pay reparations. In 1953, the German government agreed to pay $50 million in damages over a twenty-year period. The explosion is little known today, despite the fact it continues to have repercussions for Lady Liberty herself.
For more information on Rama, or where to buy the tour, visit:
Friday, 23 December 2011
As part of a university project, I’m researching the experiences of Frederick Douglass in Britain. I chose to study Douglass because he a personal hero of mine. All it took was to read his infamous speech, “What to the Slave is the 4th July?” and I was mesmerised. Reading his earlier work in Britain further convinced me of his eloquence and beautiful oratory, his strong and often simple language resulting in a challenge to the very definition of ‘American’ liberty.
Douglass is a prominent figure in American history, and is probably one of the most famous African American activists. A former slave, Douglass fled his hometown in Maryland and settled in Massachusetts, teaching himself to read and write in the process. In 1841, he was cajoled into speaking at an anti-slavery convention, and from that date until his death in 1895, he spent his life campaigning on behalf of the slave, the free black population after the Civil War, and women’s suffrage. His British experience is not covered in mainstream American or British history, a shame since his experience not only shows that anti-slavery remained active in Britain in the 1840’s, but also because Douglass learned much from his trip here. He arrived in Liverpool in 1845 for a nineteen-month journey, lecturing across England, Ireland and Scotland on slavery. His aim, in his own words, was to:
“…expose slavery in this country because to expose it is to kill it. Slavery is one of those monsters of darkness to whom the light of truth is death...[we must] tear off the mask from this abominable system to expose it to the light of heaven, aye, to the heat of the sun, that it may burn and wither it out of existence… I want the slaveholder surrounded, by a wall of anti-slavery fire, so that he may see the condemnation of himself and his system glaring down in letters of light.” (May 22nd 1846)
He exposed the curious meaning of liberty in the United States, stating that:
“…of all nations on the face of the globe, America stood forth self-convicted of being the most hypocritical; for where was there a nation on the earth that made such a boast of liberty as she? On every coin, from the cent to the dollar, was stamped “liberty”, on every star-spangled banner was the liberty-cap; and on the return of each anniversary of her independence, the war of every cannon and the sound of every “church-going bell” greeted a nation proud of its freedom…” (“American Slavery is America’s Disgrace”, Sheffield, England 25 March 1847)
Douglass aroused much support during his trip – abolitionists were not on the fringe of society as in America. However, the majority of the population in Britain believed that their work with slavery had been completed, despite the fact that Britain continued to make a profit from slave-grown produce, and in parts of India slavery continued to exist. In the end, Douglass’s British sojourn had more of an impact on him – he returned to the United States more independent and confidant, but more importantly, he returned free. British friends wrote to his former master, and paid for his release from slavery. Douglass’s journey serves to remind us that abolitionists waged a transatlantic crusade against slavery, one that should not be forgotten.
More on Douglass to come soon!
Welcome to my blog! I’m Hannah Murray, a student at Royal Holloway University, studying a Masters in Public History. It’s a great, practical degree, one that encourages a good deal of interaction with a public audience about all areas of history. So this blog will highlight some (hopefully) interesting topics that involve public history, whether it’s a museum exhibition, television programme or something random and weird in the news. I also write historic walking tours for the iphone (check out the Rama app from Past Preservers and Crimson Bamboo), so I’ll be blogging about anything interesting that comes up through my research. And encouraging you to buy it of course :-)
Post any comments or queries below!
Hope you enjoy!