Expect the Unexpected: Some thoughts on my history research

With many of our final year students here at Kingston getting to the ‘business end’ of their History degrees, a number are undertaking a project of extended research in their chosen dissertation topic. From chatting to my own three (incredibly hard-working) students, one thing in the whole process of research can be taken for granted – expect the unexpected.

What starts out as a confidently self-contained history research proposal, neatly demarcated into time periods for carrying out background reading, attending archives and writing up findings, can (and often does) suddenly morph into a maze of dead-ends and problematic documentation.

How often do we start a research project, reasonably confident in what we will find and how we will deal with it, only to be forced to think differently when we have read more widely around the subject?

Williams Image 1These are all issues we face in our research and, while they may be testing or even demoralizing, ultimately they make our work better. Indeed, in many ways, the measure of the historian is in the skill with which he or she works within these constraints, altering and adapting their approach and their expectations along the way. With one eye on the end result, they take the unexpected path, which allows them to draw new and exciting conclusions on their topic.

Working with my dissertation students I have seen exactly this happen. For one, the archival material is scattered and largely inaccessible. For another, a reading of theoretical frameworks on the topic has thrown up new and challenging ways of thinking. Both students will be forced to approach their research differently, change their assumptions and, typically, put in more hours than they had originally envisioned. In many ways this is the hardest part of the whole process, and so I wanted to offer some comfort, not necessarily by making things easier for them, but by showing how it happens to all of us.

When I started my current research, I had a reasonably clear idea of what I wanted to research and what I had hoped to find. Developing from the main focus of my PhD work, I wanted to look more closely at national awareness and nationality among certain groups of English people. My specialism is the eighteenth century but, knowing that this time period was far too unwieldy, I chose to look at the latter half of the century. I already knew that the National Archives at Kew contained a wealth of catalogued material on naval and army courts martial, so I chose to look at men in the military, specifically those ranks below commissioned officers. The period c.1750-1800 was also useful in this respect as Britain was engaged in a succession of major, global wars (Seven Years War, American War of Independence, wars against Revolutionary and, later, Napoleonic France), which would hopefully provide substantial and fruitful documentation.

Therefore, with reasonable confidence that I had a manageable and, to me, interesting research topic, I set about the process of gathering material. Many months on, that process is still ongoing, and it is the nature of the sources themselves that have made me think deeply about what I am doing. I have chosen to look at national identities through courts martial records. In other words, at the point at which relationships break down between the institution and the serving men, and specifically within the context of actions labelled as ‘seditious’ or as ‘desertion to the enemy’. At points such as these I was hoping to find articulated men’s thoughts and responses to the idea of ‘nation’, and an idea of their understanding of what it meant to be ‘English’.

George Hodge (an eighteenth century sailor). Source: http://www.hmsacasta.com

It quickly became apparent that there were at least two problems with this, one arising from the content of the sources themselves, and one perhaps deriving from the whole basis of my approach. Unfortunately for the focus of my research, only a small minority of the men at the trial referred to ‘nation’ (or to ‘government’, or to the King, as the embodiment of nation) as direct evidence of their thoughts.

In the vast majority of cases, men’s sedition was being aimed at a commanding officer, or their apparent desertion was frequently explained to the court as capture by the enemy. It was clear that, in the majority of cases, those breaking military law were not doing so consciously against ideas of nationhood and citizenship being imposed from above, but to escape the harsh military discipline or paucity of conditions of service.

Nevertheless, I have found the occasional nugget of testimony where the men have spoken directly of their feelings of the nation or the purpose of the war, and their part in it. One young man in particular, Phillip Newson, being tried for mutiny and sedition, is notably eloquent and his personal testimony of defence runs to thirteen pages (and the lad will surely be the subject of a future blog!). However, more fundamentally, in choosing to look at points of conflict, what statements exist, where there is direct relevance to my research, all tend to be negative. Indeed, the very act seen by the authorities as ‘seditious’ or as ‘desertion’ is loaded with the baggage of negativity – both are unpatriotic at best and subversive at worst.

National Archives Admiralty record ADM 1/99. Reproduced with thanks to The National Archives, Kew.

So what do I make of my situation? I also follow an early modern history blog ‘The Many-Headed Monster’ (www.manyheadedmonster.wordpress.com), which I would highly recommend to anyone interested in social and cultural histories, especially of the seventeenth century. Last year, blog authors ran an online symposium entitled ‘Voices of the People’, a series of 20 articles which considered the value of recovering ‘lost’ voices (those of the dispossessed, disempowered and minority groups) and the methods by which this might be done. It provided much food for thought for my own research, but one valuable observation made by Will Pooley was that we must also listen to the ‘silences’ of the people.

In my case, it would mean listening to the silences of the majority. These were men who served without incident of sedition or desertion, and whose attitudes towards the idea of the nation and of being ‘English’ were never recorded in writing. In spite of this, one can be fairly sure that they held attitudes and had responses of national identity, and these might have covered the spectrum from benign approval to indifferent dismissal, from patriotic fervour to unpatriotic subversion.

Thus, although the written evidence of men’s national identification is rather thin on the ground, I also have to be sensitive to the attitudes that were never recorded in the documentation. I have yet to figure out exactly how this might be done, and would appreciate any suggestions. But, hopefully, in this way, I am starting to build a respectable and interesting research project. With the impetus of a new idea in the way of thinking about things, the dead-end of source material has been turned into a new line of approach.

And, if all else fails, I have encountered an extremely interesting young man, Phillip Newson, who probably warrants a research project all of his own.

Mark Williams is Lecturer in History at Kingston University.





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