Empire, Trees, and Climate: Re-Assembling Climatic Pasts in the North Atlantic

7 04 2014

My research collaborator Kirsten Greer will be presenting a paper at the Association of American Geographers Conference in Tampa on 9 April.  Her paper is called Empire, Trees, and Climate: Re-Assembling Climatic Pasts in the North Atlantic


Kirsten Greer, Dr.* – Nipissing University
Adam Csank, Dr. – Nipissing University
Kirby Calvert, Dr. – Pennsylvania State University
Margot Maddison-MacFadyen – Memorial University

How can historical geographies of British imperial expansion, trade networks, and commodity frontiers inform climate histories?  This paper contributes to mixed methods in climate change research by combining theoretical and methodological approaches in historical geography, dendrochronology, and GIS to understand how the Atlantic triangle trade in timber can inform studies on climate.  In the early to mid-nineteenth century, British North America was an integral site in Britain’s triangular trade of timber, fish, sugar, rum, and molasses with the West Indies.  Known today as eastern Canada, the region’s forests and watersheds were transformed into the “modern” world system as the Crown secured lands and timber rights during the Napoleonic Wars.  Considering that British North American timber was integral to ship-building, imperial infrastructure (dockyards, fortifications, government buildings), and maritime supremacy in the age of sail, we provide a speculative piece on how archival and museum research, dendro-provenancing (e.g. analysis of tree ring widths of historic buildings and shipwrecks), and visualizing techniques using GIS can provide important insights into climatic conditions of the past.  We also discuss the theoretical challenges of using mixed methods in climate change research, especially when bringing together different approaches from the humanities and environmental sciences, and in thinking about the role of non-human agency in climate change.


Richard Toye, Churchill’s Empire

18 08 2010

The young Churchill charged through imperial atrocities, defending each in turn…  Of course, it’s easy to dismiss any criticism of these actions as anachronistic. Didn’t everybody in Britain think that way then? One of the most striking findings of Toye’s research is that they really didn’t: even at the time, Churchill was seen as standing at the most brutal and brutish end of the British imperialist spectrum.
This is from Johann Hari’s review of Richard Toye’s new book Churchill’s Empire. The main subject of the book is Churchill’s thinking about race.

It looks as if there is some interesting material for Canadian historians in this book.

Vimy Ridge Day

9 04 2010

Today was Vimy Ridge Day in Ottawa. See here. Vimy Ridge Day was established in 2003 by the federal government to remember the Canadians who got killed fighting in the First World War. Vimy Ridge Day was the brain child of Brent J. St. Denis, who was then the MP for the Northern Ontario riding of Algoma-Manitoulin. Today’s ceremony got extra attention because the last Canadian veteran of the war died recently.

As someone who researches the history of Anglo-Canadian relations, I’m mildly interested in the social history of the First World War in Canada. I was struck by the fact that none of the speakers at today’s ceremony, not even the Queen’s official representative in Canada(!), could bring themselves to mention the “British Empire.” That’s right, the name of the entity for which the Canadians were fighting went totally unmentioned. This is the elephant in the room nobody can bring him/herself to mention. Instead, there were anachronistic statements to the effect that the Canadians who fought in the war were fighting either for Canada or for the “international community”.

The silence on the British Empire is deafening. I bet nobody mentioned the Conscription Crisis either. Wasted opportunity to educate the public on a bit of history.

For the record, let me state that I’m glad the British Empire no longer exists. It is likely that the British decision to get involved in the First World War accelerated the demise of the British Empire and its break-up into a number of successor states in various part of the world, of which the modern nation of Canada is but one. That being said, I think that the British Empire was an important part of Canada’s history and our public leaders should not be ashamed to mention it. For Canadians, the legacy of the British Empire was pretty mixed. The old Empire was probably not as bad some left-wing historians suggest nor as good as Niall Ferguson argues. But regardless of whether it was good or bad entity, it was an important part of the Canadian story and should not be ignored. As someone with a passionate belief in historical accuracy, it is offends me when the past is distorted through such a bizarre omission. What would we think of a text on Italian history that didn’t mention the Roman Empire. The difference is that the Roman Empire was long ago, whereas the British Empire is still part of living memory (just barely though).

My reading of the situation is this. Canada today likes to think of itself as a tolerant, multicultural nation. We also have large numbers of immigrants from countries where the words “British Empire” evoke a visceral and very negative reaction. Many Canadians admire the other people who helped to overthrow British rule in their part of the world. (My university has a statue of Gandhi). All of  this means that inconvenient truths such as the fact that the First World War was divisive, that Quebeckers and many others hated conscription, that Anglo-Canadians once loved the British Empire, and that British immigrants outnumbered native-born Canadians at Vimy Ridge go totally unmentioned.

Michael Ignatieff, the leader of the Liberal Party and a former historian, was present at today’s ceremony. It is too bad that his current position does not allow him to say something interesting/truthful about Vimy Ridge.

Ignatieff, 9 April 2010

Review of Buckner, Canada and the British Empire

17 09 2009

My (favourable) review of  Philip Buckner, Canada and the British Empire (Oxford University Press, 2008) has been published in the Canadian Historical Review vol. 90, issue 3 (September 2009): 539-40. See here.

Debating the Legacies of the British Empire

26 07 2009

I’m posting a link to an excellent roundtable discussion about the legacies of the British Empire. The discussion was first broadcast in 2006 but I’ve only discussed it now. The participants are Niall Ferguson, Linda Colley, and Eric Hobsbawm (three distinguished historians), literary scholar Priyamvada Gopal, and theologian Robert Beckford. The moderator is Andrew Marr.