Abraham Lincoln’s fateful night at the theatre

Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States was assassinated 150 years ago while on a trip to the theatre. Here Dr Jennifer L. Weber, associate professor at the University of Kansas and an expert on the subject of Lincoln, gives a synopsis of the event and a glimpse into the mindset of his assassin. On 11 April 1865, two days after Confederate General Robert E. Lee had surrendered, President Abraham Lincoln stood on the White House balcony and made a few remarks to a crowd that had gathered in celebration below. Lincoln alluded to a new plan for reconstruction, one that included voting rights for some African Americans. Among those in the crowd was John Wilkes Booth, a successful stage actor and member of the well-known Booth theatrical family. Born in Maryland, he was a Confederate sympathiser and white supremacist, though he never fought in the war. Upon hearing Lincoln’s new plan, Booth turned to a friend and said: ‘That mean nigger citizenship. Now, by God, I’ll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever make.’ And with that, his months-long plan to kidnap the president and take him to Richmond turned into an assassination plot, one that involved killing the president, vice president, and secretary of state in a single night. Booth’s object was to decapitate the American government. His opportunity came quickly. On the night of 14 April, Lincoln and his wife were to attend ‘Our American Cousin’, a comedy play being performed at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C. The Lincolns and their guests, Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancée, Clara Harris,...

Should historians learn text processing techniques?

By Jonathan Blaney Historians have always dealt with large amounts of text and have had to develop ways of dealing with the volume of it, such as the index card or the Renaissance book wheel. Now that much textual information comes in electronic form, that data is now much easier to access and to analyse. But some historians are under the misapprehension that text processing techniques are difficult to learn. Many texts are now available to download in digital form. This is a great opportunity but also a challenge to the traditional humanities scholar. Those who would like to know what they can do with their text collections may not be sure where to get the information, and they may find that online courses are written for the computer scientist rather than the historian. The IHR has written two free courses to teach historians the basics of semantic data and of data mining. No prior knowledge is needed and there are plenty of genuine historical examples to illustrate the material. Semantic data means encoding texts according to their characteristics. The beauty of this is that the characteristics can be whatever the researcher is interested in, whether it is the date at which a placename is mentioned, the excise duty in port records, or the language used in a diplomat’s letter. If you decide that encoding the texts yourself is too much work, knowing how it is done will not only help you use other digital collections more expertly, it may even allow you to ask questions of the data that you did not know could be answered. Many marked-up...

Magna Carta: the international symbol of freedom

By Danny Millum Magna Carta has inspired some of today’s fundamental liberties, yet it began life 800 years ago as a practical solution to a political crisis. It has since evolved to become an international symbol of freedom, and with the creation of the largest exhibition ever staged about this celebrated document, we now have an opportunity to uncover the story of how its power has been used – and abused – from its genesis through to today’s popular culture. Due to open this month (13 March–1 September 2015), the British Library’s Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, is part of a series of events to commemorate the 800th anniversary of the granting of the Magna Carta, one of the world’s most famous documents. Already, the British Library, Lincoln Cathedral and Salisbury Cathedral have made history by bringing the four original surviving Magna Carta manuscripts together in one place, for the first time. At a special screening on 3 February, the manuscripts were viewed by 1,215 people who won the chance to attend the event after entering a public ballot launched last year. They were followed the next day by a group of world-leading Magna Carta academics who have been studying several hundred other King John charters during the course of a three-year research project. Examining the four manuscripts in context of these other charters, they studied them side by side, scrutinising the handwriting of each of the scribes and considering the evidence of the ownership of the documents throughout its 800 year existence. The manuscripts have now been returned to their home institutions, and each will be putting on a...

Managing your Research: launch of a new online resource to help historians to look after their data

Historians don’t often like to think about data management.  Indeed, it is almost considered an ugly word or a taboo.  Data Management gets in the way of the interesting stuff – the research, the learning.  Nevertheless, it is vital to the work that we do.  History is data.  It is the essential essence of the subject.  Yet, it is so easy to leave your folder system in a complete mess or not to consider issues of preservation or back-up until necessary (or until your hard drive dies on you!).  Stuff that you produce now, for current use is understandable, but 6 months down the line, a year?  Perhaps not so much. It is for this reason that the Institute of Historical Research in partnership with the Department of History at the University of Hull and Sheffield, as well as the Humanities Research Institute (Sheffield), have produced this online resource to guide postgraduate students in the processes of looking after their research. The online course – Managing your Research – offers students the opportunity to create a data management plan which can be used to help guide their research and used as evidence of a well thought out research project for supervisors, funding bodies, and potential employers. Using videos, handbooks, and exercises to guide the researcher through the relevant information, the course is designed to be of practical use for anyone starting or undertaking a research project. Managing your Research was developed via funding from the AHRC Collaborative Skills Development strand. It is the main output of the History DMT project and can now be found on the School of...

Hidden histories: Britain’s secret stash

Dr Sarah Stockwell, a senior lecturer in Imperial and Commonwealth History at King’s College London, discuss the latest in a series of decolonisation workshops organised by the Institute of Commonwealth Studies. I am greatly looking forward to the upcoming workshop ‘The hidden history of decolonisation’ at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICWS) on 20 February. This is the latest in a regular series of ‘decolonisation workshops’ organised by ICWS in conjunction with King’s College London, which are now firmly established as key events for those working in the field, especially for postgraduates and early career researchers. Last semester’s workshop organised with colleagues at the University of Portsmouth on ‘Connected histories of decolonisation’ was an outstanding success. This week’s event promises to be different again – and very important. We’re going to be discussing what has literally been the ‘hidden’ history of British decolonisation. In 2011 as a result of a successful legal action brought by Mau Mau veterans, former British foreign secretary William Hague finally admitted what had long been suspected but never previously confirmed: that British governments had covertly removed thousands of files from former colonies at independence. Rather than deposit these with other colonial records, these so-called ‘migrated archives’ were secretly stashed at a government repository at Hanslope Park. At a stroke this revelation cast an entirely new light on Britain’s retreat from empire. Not only were all previous accounts of UK policy based on a seriously incomplete archival record, but even more strikingly, on the archival base that British governments chose to release to historians. This was not just a question of government holding back files...
From a book to a United Nations resolution: Yes we can!

From a book to a United Nations resolution: Yes we can!

By Henning Melber and David Wardrop Once upon a time there was a Secretary General of the United Nations. Along with 15 others, he died in a plane crash. It was the night of 17-18 September 1961, when the Albertina, a DC-6, was approaching the airport of Ndola in the British colony of Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). The UN Secretary General was Dag Hammarskjöld. He was on his way to meet the leader of the Katanga secession, Moïse Tshombe, to find a peaceful solution to the conflict in the mineral-rich Congolese province, of huge geostrategic relevance. Investigations immediately after the tragedy reached differing conclusions. A UN Commission delivered an open verdict and was unable to rule out sabotage, while a Rhodesian inquiry blamed the crash on pilot error. In 1962 the UN General Assembly adopted a Resolution. This stipulated that if new evidence were to be presented, the UN investigation should be re-opened. Speculations on the cause of the crash thrived for decades, but without leading to a new inquiry. This changed 50 years later. Dr Susan Williams, a British historian and Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, a member of the School of Advanced Study, published Who Killed Hammarskjöld? (Hurst 2011), which evaluated evidence from archives and from witnesses, pointing to numerous irregularities in the investigations. It also presented disturbing new facts, as well as important concerns raised by others over the years. Her book stopped short of an answer, but challenged the dominant explanation of an accident and argued the case for a new investigation. This was backed by Dag’s nephew Knut Hammarskjöld, who returned his...

Twenty-five years ago:  Mandela finishes his long walk to freedom

On 11 February 1990, the world’s most famous political prisoner was set free after 27 and a half years in captivity. Keith Somerville, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICWS) who has been following South African politics for decades, discusses the event that heralded the end of white minority rule and launched a new era in a divided country. The sight of Nelson Mandela hand-in-hand with wife Winnie, his other hand clenched and raised in a defiant salute to the crowd and cameras, is one of the dominant images of the late 20th century. As he walked to freedom from Victor Verster prison on 11 February 1990, it was as though another Berlin Wall had come down, this time the brutal one of apartheid. It presaged an era of hope but also trepidation in South Africa, establishing Nelson Mandela as one of the century’s great statesmen, converting him from the liberation leader prepared to die for his beliefs into the man who led the ANC to power. He was the voice of reconciliation and builder of the rainbow nation. That the excitement, expectations and the huge hopes of that day concealed the enormity of the task ahead of Mandela and the ANC is not surprising. Nor is it surprising that his election in 1994, his message of reconciliation and global role came to dominate reporting and analysis of his years in power, concealing the ANC’s failure to deal with many core problems in South African society and the economy. His national and global standing boosted the feeling among, and within, the ANC that they had...

Magna Carta 1215–2015: England’s greatest export

The four surviving copies of the original 1215 Magna Carta will come together for the first time in history as part of a one-off event organised by the British Library to mark the 800th anniversary of the signing of the historic document. Julian Harrison, curator of medieval manuscripts at the British Library explains why it is important we should commemorate these medieval documents. If you’ve been keeping your ears to the ground, you may be aware that 2015 marks the 800th anniversary of the granting of Magna Carta. Interest in the ‘Great Charter’ (the English translation of Magna Carta) is certainly on the rise. Already this year radio and television documentaries have been broadcast about Magna Carta, politicians of all parties have latched on to its principles, and controversy has raged over the new Royal Mint coin which shows the Great Charter being ‘signed’ in 1215. People sometimes question why we are commemorating Magna Carta this year. Is a medieval document, written in Latin, still relevant today? The simple answer is that Magna Carta has had widespread influence over the past 800 years, particularly in the English-speaking world. It has influenced politicians and campaigners worldwide, including Thomas Jefferson, Winston Churchill and Nelson Mandela, and certain of its values are echoed in later constitutional texts, such as the United States Bill of Rights (ratified in 1791) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). Just three clauses of Magna Carta remain valid in English law, but the most significant and influential one, never repealed, is this: ‘No man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions,...

Remembering Churchill: fifty years on his opinions still matter

To mark the 50th anniversary of the death and funeral of Winston Churchill, Cambridge history fellow and Churchill author Dr Warren Dockter, analyses the complex legacy of the wartime leader who is believed by many to be the ‘lion who roared when the British Empire needed him most’. Winston Churchill is one of the most important and iconic leaders of the 20th Century. His legacy looms large in the British national psyche and commands reverence from all quarters of the globe. The 30th of January marks the 50th anniversary of his state funeral and offers the world a chance to commemorate his memory and celebrate his life. This has already begun at ChurchillCentral.com  which acts as a hub that brings together numerous Churchill-related organisations for the year-long celebration which has been entitled, Churchill 2015. Certainly, 2015 will also feature much debate on Churchill’s memory. Though Churchill undoubtedly resonates more with the Right than the Left, political ideologies will compete to claim his achievements. The Right will celebrate Churchill’s devotion to Britain, free trade, and tradition, while the Left will venerate his championing of social reform during the early 1900s and his inclusive approach to the formation of his wartime government. Regardless of where one sits on the political spectrum, Churchill’s failures (such as the disastrous Dardanelles and Gallipoli campaign) and his more archaic views (such as his support for eugenics and his ill-fated crusade to keep India firmly in the grasp of the British Empire) will also bear some reflection. Major historical figures often have positive and negative effects which reverberate in history. In Churchill’s case, these effects can at...