Undergraduate Modules 

Research Seminar: Black Atlantics in the Global South
Course Description and Structure

In this year-long research seminar, we consider whether “Black Atlantic,” originally coined by Paul Gilroy, is a useful conceptual term for the early Southern Atlantic. Since Europeans’ earliest contacts with West African societies in the fifteenth century, Africans and the African Diaspora have played important roles in shaping historical trajectories, transatlantic cultures, and intellectual thought in the Atlantic world.

In the seventeenth century and beyond, certain regions of the New World were ostensibly African. For example, in seventeenth-century Cartagena de Indias (in present-day Colombia) – one of the largest slave ports in the Spanish Americas – links between large urban, free black populations and powerful runaway-slave maroon societies in the hinterlands demonstrate the important legacy of African kingship and power structures in the New World. Similarly, highly sought-after free and enslaved African healers in Cartagena and the Caribbean mixed indigenous American, European, and African curing techniques, resulting in the development of important healing practices in the Atlantic world. The emergence of African Catholicism through the veneration of black saints in religious brotherhoods across the Iberian world mirrors late seventeenth-century Catholicism in the Kongo, where religious movements arose to venerate black saints and claim Jesus as Kongolese. In the south, a Lusophone (Portuguese-speaking) Black Atlantic also emerged. Generations of Eurafrican trading families circulated throughout the Lusophone world between Luanda, Lisbon, and Bahia in the seventeenth century, and later also between Benguela, Ouidah, and Rio. African traders operated on both sides of the Atlantic, and many Brazilians and former slaves established residency in Portuguese ports in Africa. Some elite Africans sent their children to be educated in Brazil and hired out their slaves to work in Brazil. Such intense communication between these spaces meant that reverberations from changing African power structures were acutely felt in Brazil.

We explore the concept of the Black Atlantic by paying particular attention to the relationship between Africa, Southern Europe, the early Spanish Americas and the Caribbean, exploring the connections and interdependencies between these regions and intellectual histories of the early Black Atlantic with particular foci on African Diaspora’s contribution to the formation of knowledge and the shaping of what is often considered the Western Tradition. In particular, students consider the impact of Africa on the Atlantic world and European Atlantic empires and develop an understanding of histories of regions of the African Atlantic littoral in the period. We consider the broad historiographical and societal implications of a Black Atlantic that emerged earlier than the late eighteenth century, and not in the Anglo north, but in the Iberian south.

Our primary focus is to develop skills for independent historical research. To that end, during the first seven weeks, we assess a broad range of primary sources that will orient students to the types of sources available to explore histories from below in the Iberian and African Atlantic worlds in this period. The seminar readings focus on key caches of primary sources in translation, including, royal decrees, Inquisition cases, cases in Real Audiencias in the Indies and Council of the Indies in Castile, House of Trade travel license applications, official and private correspondence, in addition to travelers’ chronicles, slave-trade shipping records, and testaments from notarial documents. From Week 8 onwards, students begin to develop their own research questions in preparation for their Research Essay, and the class meets for structured workshops with a significant focus on the various stages in the process of completing a research project and a peer-review-framework for students’ to develop the skills to revise and review their own written work.

The module has five Formative Assessments throughout the year that have been designed to help students to develop the historical research, writing, and thinking skills for the two Summative Assessments for this module. The first piece of Summative Assessment is the 1000-word Public History essay for a series called Historical Sources in Conversation that will be published on a public history website for this module (the website is called Black Atlantics in the Global South: Historical Sources in Conversation and will be available at blackatlantics.wordpress.com). For Historical Sources in Conversation (1000 words), students will be asked to introduce and analyse a cluster of primary sources of their choice (normally 2-3) and explore the key research, intellectual, or thematic questions that are related to the sources that they chose (these questions will depend on students’ own particular interests), and to write an essay that seeks to engage and inform a broad audience. The Formative Assessments I and IV (and accompanying Public History Workshops) will help students to develop the necessary skills and knowledge to complete the Public History Summative Assessment, which include: historical thinking (analyzing a cluster of primary sources collectively); primary source analysis; basic technological skills to post on the website; sourcing of relevant permissions for use of any images; and most importantly, the genre of writing public history and the practice of revising and polishing pieces of writing. The second piece of Summative Assessment is the 5000-word Research Essay. The three related Formative Assessments (II, III, and V) will help students to: 1) develop a concise research question from a wide geographical scope and that draws on one of the extensive primary source collections explored in the course, and others available online and in archives in London, particularly at the British Library; 2) frame their research question within key debates in a body of scholarly literature; 3) select appropriate primary sources suitable for their research project; 4) receive substantial peer-review feedback on two extracts of their essay and a first draft; 5) have a substantial draft of their research essay by Week 20. 

Advanced Seminar: Race, Identity and Empire in the Iberian World 1500-1700
Course Description and Structure

In empires where the privileged few – those with white skin color, appropriate ancestry (often linked to birth in Castile), and purity of blood – filled positions of power, how did Iberian monarchs in the metropole exert colonial control over diverse and distant regions and people for over three hundred years? For example, during the early era of conquest and colonization in the Spanish American empire, New World-born Spanish creoles, noble indigenous natives, indigenous communities, free and enslaved black individuals, and other colonial subjects far outnumbered native-born Spaniards. The answer lies in a complex brokerage of power and a system of petitions to the monarch, which arguably was more democratic than the often-widely held image of Iberian empires as monolithic, uncompromising, centrally dictating powers.

Exploring the workings and logic of imperial institutions of power, local alliances, collaboration between different imperial subjects, and the role of distant monarchs, this advanced seminar explores how these conditions served as fundamental nodes in maintaining and shaping colonial power. Through the lens of social and intellectual histories of empire in the Iberian world, the seminars consider how colonial subjects in the Iberian empires – including free black and indigenous American populations – shaped empire, religion, and science through daily practices and litigation.

In weekly seminars, we explore how indigenous Americans and African Diaspora – both as individuals and communities – responded to the intellectual milieus of empire. For example, seminars consider how colonial subjects – including free black populations and indigenous Americans – shaped laws through daily practices and by petitioning for rights to royal vassalage in royal courts, while also exploring how they contributed to knowledge formation and ideas about religion, science, and, empire that are often regarded as having emerged from a Western Tradition in Europe.

Positioning such groups as intellectuals who shaped Iberian empires and the broader Atlantic world, this module analyzes their intellectual histories through an inter-disciplinary approach to works that they produced, including written traces in legal documents, religious treatises, contemporaneous histories, artifacts, art, and written correspondence. In doing so, we consider key theoretical and historiographical debates concerning knowledge and power, in particular regarding whose thoughts, ideas, and histories become etched into historical memory, while others are marginalized and silenced, and or appropriated. To that end, part of seminar 9 ‘Scientific Knowledge’ will take place in the British Museum.

Special Subject: Indios, Africans, and Women in the Iberian Empires 1500-1700
Course Description and Structure

Africans, African Diaspora, indigenous Americans, mestizos, women, Muslims, Jews, conversos, and moriscos wrote about and shaped the intellectual life of early Iberian empires in myriad ways. For example, in 1615, Felipe Huaman Poma de Ayala, a Quechua nobleman from Peru, published a New Chronicle and Good Government, which presented a Catholic theological world-view that incorporated indigenous Americans as equals in the Iberian world.

Another example is an extraordinary sixteenth-century manuscript called The Codex Tepetlaoztoc, which is housed at the British Museum. The codex was commissioned by the indigenous inhabitants of Tepetlaoztoc (in present day Mexico) and its indigenous governor, Luis de Tepada, and served as a lawsuit brought by Tepetlaoztoc against the town’s Spanish encomenderos. The manuscript presents an entire worldview or cosmo-vision that deepens our understandings of New Spain and the Spanish empire in the sixteenth century. The Codex represents the strategies that a particular community employed to navigate Iberian imperial law that was imposed on them, in particular to complain of abusive encomenderos, who exacted tribute in the form of services and goods from the population in return for supposedly supervising the town’s Christian conversion. The Codex shows a community’s attempt to re-shape their own lives, communities, and Iberian law through a royal petition to a distant monarch.

Focusing on the major theoretical debates on how to define intellectual history, our seminars explore how different colonial subjects attempted to shape Iberian empires through an analysis of the textual sources that they produced, while also exploring a broad array of other primary sources in translation that include inquisition cases, art, objects, royal petitions, and letters. We focus on the major theoretical debates on how to define intellectual history, and explore the ways that different colonial subjects wrote histories of empire, and attempted (and sometimes succeeded) to shape the worlds that they lived in. Students will gain an acute awareness of the stakes of writing history and who gets to define the cannon, while also being exposed to a broad array of primary sources, such as inquisition cases, art, objects, royal petitions, letters.

The seminar will consider 8 core primary sources in translation that were penned by indigenous American nobles, black Africans, African-woman, and Iberian women. These sources will introduce students to various genres of primary sources that include: theological treatises, literary epics, legal petitions to a distant monarch, geographical histories, cartography, codices, and art. We will read the sources, assess the contexts in which they were written, and assess their significance. Other seminars will expose students to pertinent debates in historiography and a wide variety of primary sources that will allow students to develop their interests for standalone dissertation topics on a broad array of subjects in the Iberian World.

The Special Subject will prepare students to develop independent dissertation research projects that intersect with the early Iberian World, while also encouraging interested students to develop research projects relating to the core primary texts of the module. Students are free to develop a dissertation topic on any question relating to the early Iberian world (broadly conceived) as long as they can identify a cache of sources (either published or in manuscript) that they will be able to draw on (depending on their relevant language skills), and obtain permission from the course tutor. We will have two dissertation-research and writing workshops where students will be expected to present and discuss their dissertation projects.

Thematic Seminar: Slavery and Freedom in the Atlantic World 1450-1750
Course Description and Structure

At least 12 million African men, women, and children were forcibly displaced into the Atlantic world between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, constituting the largest long[ -distance coerced displacement of people in history. Subjugated Africans were transported across the Atlantic chained below decks on ships; these violent and often-fatal oceanic crossings became ominously known as the Middle Passage. How did Europeans and Africans justify this unprecedented massive coerced displacement? What were the historical conditions that led to this massive, violent, and often fatal forcible displacement of Africans? How did the transatlantic slave trade and the establishment of slave societies transform the history of empires, capitalism, and ideas about race? What impact did enslaved and free Africans have on the history of the Atlantic world? What did slavery and freedom mean in different sites across the Atlantic world, and how did such meanings change across different sites and over time?

In this year-long thematic seminar, we explore how historians have attempted to understand, quantify, and write about the Middle Passages and the transatlantic slave trades, and consider recent scholarship that interrogates the lived meanings of slavery and freedom. We explore the reasons for the rise in the transatlantic slave trade by assessing how and why European empires came to rely increasingly on African slave labor and the theological and legal justifications offered at the time for the enslavement and forcible displacement of black Africans. We also interrogate the cultural and political effects of contact between people of diverse socio-cultural origins in Atlantic spaces, and specifically the impact of Africa and Africans on the Atlantic world. We place African places and cultures at the centre of Atlantic history and consider the significance of African histories and epistemologies in the development of the Atlantic world. Finally, a central theme for our seminar will be to interrogate the often changing and locally contingent meanings of slavery and freedom in the early Atlantic world, and the role of ideas about race in determining such definitions.