Thursday, 19 December 2013

Geography isn’t my strong suit, but…..

One of the most interesting and rewarding aspects of our work within the University Archives team at Hull History Centre is preparing and giving workshops for undergraduates and postgraduates about archives relevant to their subject.  These have two main objectives:  to give students a good grounding in the broad range of skills and knowledge needed to undertake research using archives; and to introduce them to the kinds of documents that they might be using in their research. 

For those students who haven’t used archives before it is difficult for them to envisage how they can enhance their research, how they add to the knowledge that students gain through reading books or journals. But as soon as they encounter documents for the first time, whether official minutes and accounts or personal letters, they are immediately interested and engaged.

We have been holding workshops for students in History and English for several years, but this semester, for the first time we were asked to provide a workshop for Geography students.  The students were studying a module called Geography and Empire, which looks at “the complex relations between geographical knowledge and European imperialism and colonialism, c.1830-1945” and “the extent to which geography was a political resource that played a series of crucial roles in cultural, social, political and economic affairs in the period”.

I knew that we would have some relevant material within several of our collections. Within landed family and estate archives there are papers of individuals such as Sir Charles Chichester, involved in colonial administration and military campaigns; and there are files relating to colonialism and foreign policy within papers of politicians such as Sir Patrick Wall and pressure groups such as the Union of Democratic Control. 

It was a challenge for me to focus on material that had particular relevance for the study of geography rather than history, but I it was fascinating to look at familiar archive collections from a different point of view.  

I found a wonderful range of material and a few documents in particular that gave a powerful illustration of the complex relationship between geography and history.  Highlights include an illuminated invitation to a Maori reception in Rotorua, New Zealand from Lord Wenlock's world tour as lord-in-waiting to the Duke and Duchess of York in 1901; and a catalogue from Isaac Walton's, tropical outfitters of Ludgate Hill, 1930.

One of several maps in the collection relating to the Sykes-Picot agreement (Ref U DDSY2/4/78/3)
The most striking records came from the papers of Sir Mark Sykes, who travelled in the Middle East in the years before the First World War and negotiated the Sykes-Picot agreement in 1916 and featured in a recent episode of the BBC's Making of the Modern Arab World .   There is a letter from the office of Thomas Cook and Son in Jerusalem to Mark Sykes, regarding travel arrangements for a trip 1902, including costs for numerous donkeys and their handlers. 
There are maps of Turkish lands in Syria, and Western Persia  - some showing  railways, roads, military dispositions, oil and submarine bases; and some with shading or lines drawn across to show different proposals for the division of territory in the secret agreement between Britain and France for the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire.   Maps, like pictures, can be worth a thousand words.

Judy Burg
University Archivist

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