This summer, I had the great privilege to design and teach an undergraduate history course at the University of Florida. Rather than teach an isolated history of Britain I designed a course titled Britain and Europe based around a beguilingly simple question: is Britain European?
I knew that interest in the UK’s prolonged and controversial withdrawal from the European Union remains a point of interest among the public. However, beyond a general idea that the Brexit referendum occurred in 2016, I knew there would be a large gap to fill in the basic idea of British history as part of European history, and I emphatically did not want to teach just the history of Brexit. Indeed, nearly every student said at the beginning of the semester that they had a vague idea of Brexit but were thirsting to know the deeper historical background of the referendum. As such, the course was a more expansive study of what the British understand Europe to mean in relation to their own history and culture. To accomplish these goals, I organized the course around themes that emphasized identity, mobility, and empire.
Placing imperial history at the heart of the metropole, and at the heart of Europe, was essential to my vision for this course.
The question of empire, and specifically the British Empire within Europe, allowed the students to question the nostrum of Britain’s “splendid isolation” from European affairs in the nineteenth century. Working in small groups, the students examined the policies of religious incorporation of Catholics in Minorca and Jews in Malta, attempts at developing a “British identity” in Gibraltar, restrictions placed on German Jewish migration to Palestine in the 1930s on the eve of the Holocaust, the experience of British military families stationed in West Germany at the dawn of the Cold War, and the imperial politics of venereal disease control in Cyprus. Each student group produced a twenty-minute podcast where they closely outlined their selected author’s analysis and placed it within a broader perspective of British history. I was particularly proud of these podcasts as they showcased the students’ ability to think historically, but also gave them useful training in digital methods that define how a large number of people encounter history. These projects ensured that every student had the space and ability to actively participate in the complex (but exciting) work of analyzing a piece of secondary scholarship in a productive, accessible, and organized setting. One student observed that “this required some coordination and advanced planning, especially because multiple students were working to have a constructive educational conversation, which forced us to adapt to each other's ‘styles’."
Placing imperial history at the heart of the metropole, and at the heart of Europe, was essential to my vision for this course. Even though we mainly concentrated on metropolitan Britain and its relation to Europe, the Atlantic slave trade and Atlantic slavery are fundamentally part of this history. By the middle of the eighteenth century, Liverpool was the largest slave-trading port in Europe, ahead of London, Bristol, Bordeaux, La Rochelle, Lisbon, Cadiz, and Amsterdam.
I argued that the history of eighteenth-century Britain is fundamentally a history of Black Britain as well. Take for instance Ignatius Sancho, a prolific abolitionist writer, successful London tea merchant, classical composer, and Black Briton. Showing the students Sancho’s place on the electoral roll in 1774 because of his extensive property holdings provided a refreshing way to discuss debates on the “unreformed House of Commons.” Sancho’s later life overlapped with that of the famous Chevalier de Saint-Georges, a Guadalupian-born free man of color, court composer at Versailles, and later émigré to London after the outbreak of the French Revolution. Saint-Georges circulated through similar abolitionist circles in Britain as Sancho, as well as the famous Olaudah Equiano, Ottobah Cugoano, Phillis Wheatley, and others.
My approach also stressed the movement of peoples and ideas across both Britain and Europe. By studying the “grand tour” of the eighteenth century, we not only unpacked the romantics’ vogue of orientalism in the Ottoman Empire, but also how that translated into political activism in Britain. Lord Byron, in his maiden speech to the House of Lords in 1812, observed that never on his travels through Ottoman Europe did he “behold such squalid wretchedness as I have seen since my return, in the very heart of a Christian country” as he condemned the government’s response to the Luddite protests. This is a history of mobility across social classes, however, and by the middle of the nineteenth century, the railway allowed for the mass travel of middle-class men and women in profound ways. To emphasize this theme, the students’ midterm assignment was a creative writing exercise where they crafted a travelogue of journeys between locales in Britain and Europe of their choosing up to the start of the Second World War. Ranging from an analysis of the Russian Bolshoi ballet in London to the travels of British Fascists to Mussolini’s Italy, the students engaged with different genres of historical analysis and experimented with different registers of writing.
I firmly believe that we should take incorporating new methodologies in our pedagogy as seriously as we take the newest “turn” in our field and various sub-fields. One of the great benefits of teaching up to the Brexit referendum was the large number of primary sources available through television archives freely accessible on YouTube. For the class, I curated a media library of content focusing on the course themes from the 1960s to the present. I encouraged the students to analyze and “read” this content just as any other primary source. In a lesson to us all, one student observed that “using videos as primary sources...will be very useful in the future when more and more of history is not just old diary entries and newspapers.”
Finally, throughout the semester, students maintained an Active Reading Journal where they responded to a variety of prompts reflecting not only on the readings and course content, but also their own level of knowledge and their process of learning. In other words, their metacognition. Emphasizing the importance of metacognition gave the students agency in their own learning. One student reflected that they had honed skills in “collaborative learning, analytical writing, and close reading.” Another opined that their use of critical thinking and contextualized knowledge were all “things which are highly lacking in our society as a whole these days.”
Teaching Britain and Europe was challenging as an instructor because it forced me to juggle British, European, and imperial histories simultaneously. We dealt with complex histories of race, empire, political activism and radicalism, and war and peace. But trying to answer this question of Britain’s history in Europe, in my view, means that we as historians and teachers must take a view of Britain and Europe that is wider in scope and more deeply entangled than we might imagine. In asking if Britain is “European,” we must decide what “European” is as a working definition. I was committed to broadening the students’ definition of Europe but also making that broader story indispensable for British history.
You can view a list of additional primary source collections used in this course here in our member forum.
Acknowledgement: In preparing for this course, I was fortunate to receive support from the University of Florida’s Center for European Studies through a graduate course development grant in addition to enthusiastic support from my home department.
Jeffrey Jones is a doctoral candidate at the University of Florida specializing in Modern Britain and its empire. His work focuses on British "formal" and "informal" imperial ventures in Latin America, especially the colony of British Honduras/Belize. His dissertation, tentatively entitled “‘Ancient Obligations’: The British Empire in the Caribbean Basin, 1763–1862,” examines how British colonial officials and the metropolitan public were captivated with borderlands of the Caribbean Basin which were contested between both European and American empires as well as indigenous and Afro-indigenous polities.
The views and opinions expressed in this post are solely those of the original author/s and do not necessarily represent the views of the North American Conference on British Studies. The NACBS welcomes civil and productive discussion in the comments below. Our blog represents a collegial and conversational forum, and the tone for all comments should align with this environment. Insulting or mean comments will not be tolerated and NACBS reserves the right to delete these remarks and revoke the commenter’s site membership.