Welcome to the University of Reading History department! If you are reading this, you are most likely a new student about to embark on their journey for an undergraduate History degree. Starting university can be overwhelming. In all the uncertainty of the past year, you might not have had the chance to visit campus in person or are nervous how to prepare for your course.
We asked our wonderful staff and experienced PhD students for their top tips for incoming historians at the University of Reading….
The main thing that I would encourage any new undergraduate to do is to try new things. We’re so fortunate here at Reading to have a History department with such a fascinating variety of expertise, with modules that span the medieval period to the recent past and cover a huge swathe of the globe. It’s the perfect opportunity in your first year to encounter topics that you haven’t studied before, gain new insights, and perhaps find your own future area of expertise. I had never studied American history when I started my undergraduate degree – and frankly didn’t think it was all that interesting – and now I teach and research it! Make use of this unique time in your life to move beyond your comfort zone and see what else is out there. Find the modules that intrigue you and enjoy them! – Dr Liz Barnes, Lecturer
Follow you heart and try something new. While you require a pass mark for the first year, the overall mark does not contribute to your overall degree classification. A such, be brave, follow your heart and delve into a topic you have never done before or even thought about. There is always a temptation to fall back on what you have done at A level and often an EPQ – try not to do that. As a student I was interested in radicalism and revolution, but rather than sit in the modern period I looked at the Peasant’s Revolt, the Interregnum alongside the French and Russian Revolutions. I am now a Modern British Political Historian but all that I studied provided a rich backdrop for my research on class and gender in parliament today. – Dr Jacqui Turner, Associate Professor
You probably need to do less than you think you do, but try and give whatever you do a spirit of very careful, focussed, attention. Notice what excites your mind and move towards that. – Dr Dina Rezk, Associate Professor
Read the introduction followed by the conclusion of any set reading before trying to tackle the middle. This will speed up your reading and set you up well for the rest of your degree! Treat yourself to a lunchtime bagel in the union, because they are literally the best. Finally, spend time perfecting your knowledge of the referencing style for essays in your first year! Try to remember that as nervous as you feel meeting so many new people, you are all in the same boat. Try to get involved if you can in seminar activities to seek out new friends and turn to trusted seminar tutors/academics for support if you need this! – Beth Rebisz, PhD Student
See the first year as a learning process where you’re figuring out how to write at undergraduate level, not A Level – and if your marks are not Firsts all the time, that’s normal! A lot of people go from being at the top of their school classes and then panic if they get 2:2s, when actually that’s just helping them learn a whole new set of skills. – Amy Austin, PhD Student
Identifying your preferred learning modality and experimenting with different methods of study will reduce stress and improve retention. This is a form of self-care. Learning to embrace criticism and negative feedback is essential for growth… and do the readings. We can tell when you didn’t. – Richard Balzano, PhD Student
Learn to skim read and that the index is your friend – you don’t need to read every single book cover to cover. – Aisha Djelid, PhD Student
Don’t be scared to ask questions! Make the most out of the fact that you actually have a specialist in the field right in front of you – ask questions and question the ideas and thoughts that are discussed in class. Make sure you enjoy your first year. Try to find ‘your’ topic in each class. Even if it’s the caricatures of politicians in a class on 19th Victorian political philosophy. Get to know the library and the people who work there. They can be the biggest help when you write your papers. – Michelle Tessmann, PhD Student
I remember being totally crestfallen when I got the marks back on my first paper, and it took me a while to realise everyone was in the same boat (& I wasn’t an imposter who’d slipped through the net). I find it super useful to read other people’s work early on – e.g. by asking module leaders for past essays that have scored well, just to get a feel for style. It’s crazy how being out of essay writing mode over the summer impacts the quality of your work in the first term of the new academic year, and reading other people’s work who are at a more advanced stage can provide a useful barometer of where you should be aiming for. Also, be to be open to seeing what other departments are up to and what events are on, and where they can add to your experience both academically and socially! – Emily Peirson-Webber, PhD Student
And last, but certainly not least….
I would recommend figuring out where the toilets are in all the random parts of Edith Morley! – Amie Bolissian
Remember, always reach out if you are feeling overwhelmed. We can’t wait to see where your journey as a historian takes you.
The Cold War shaped the latter half of the American twentieth century, and the bipolar standoff and its peripheral contests could be felt in every corner of domestic American life. Washington’s security pursuits often generated results that contradicted domestic goals, especially so with drug policy. When Ronald Reagan assumed the US presidency in 1981 on a campaign promise to reignite the Cold War, he delivered on that promise in such a way that Cold War security initiatives exacerbated America’s drug crisis. In turn, Reagan responded by escalating the ‘war on drugs’ in all the wrong hardline places. These inconsistent and contradicting policies are evident throughout the 1980s, but most glaring when they intersect in the least likely of places: the American summer camp.
First lady Nancy Reagan visited America’s summer camps throughout the 1980s. During her visits, the first lady participated in recreational activities and spoke on matters of leisure and importance, using these visits as a platform for her ‘Just Say No’ anti-drug campaign. Although the campaign sought to reduce demand, ‘Just Say No’ was a far cry from the enlightened, support-based demand-reduction model that experts would promote in coming decades, nor was it a step in that direction. ‘Just Say No’ appealed to individualism and personal responsibility through intimidation and alienation, aligning ‘“drugs”…with a dangerous and roughly defined “other”’, and presenting America’s addiction problem ‘as the consequence of collective personal failure in affected communities rather than a public health crisis’. After extolling the virtues of accountability on campers, the first lady would on occasion seek to extract sobriety pledges from children as young as age six.
The Reagan administration escalated both the drug war and the Cold War throughout the 1980s, although the methods and outcomes were contradicting. On the foreign policy front, the administration exacerbated civil strife in Central America by backing rights-abusing anticommunist regimes and insurgents. Despite legislative obstacles and congressional opposition, Reagan put his weight behind the Nicaraguan Contra insurgency and made overt and clandestine efforts to fund them, while his perception management team worked tirelessly to package these initiatives in the altruism and simplicity of Manichean Cold War rhetoric. Ronald Reagan’s February 1985 State of the Union address famously identified the Contras as ‘freedom fighters’, a brand his administration vigorously projected.
On Reagan’s watch, American intelligence enabled Nicaraguan expatriates to bring substantial amounts of cocaine into the US, and the proceeds of which were used to fund the Contra insurgency. The Contra-cocaine connection was first exposed in late 1985 by journalists Robert Parry and Brian Barger, and investigated further by then-Democratic Senator John Kerry as the Iran-Contra affair unfolded in 1986. Diligent and controversial research by late journalist Gary Webb in the following decade exposed a labyrinth of American complicity, and Webb identified this particular supply chain as a catalyst in America’s 1980s ‘crack’-cocaine outbreak.
On the domestic front, the Reagan administration escalated the ‘war on drugs’—the same war that US intelligence was simultaneously exacerbating. Draconian legal penalties were introduced for non-violent and drug-related offenses throughout the 1980s, proving an early step towards America’s current mass-incarceration model. The administration’s punitive and contradicting initiatives were flanked by Nancy Reagan’s ‘Just Say No’ campaign, presented in classrooms, summer camps, and similar environments.
Nancy Reagan was likely not privy to the scope of American complicity in the ‘crack’-cocaine outbreak of the 1980s, but the Iran-Contra scandal and the reports of cocaine trafficking carried out by her husband’s favourite pet insurgency would have been difficult for the first lady to ignore. Perhaps Nancy Reagan dismissed the Contra-cocaine connection as a liberal media’s partisan conspiracy? After all, the Contras were supposed to be ‘freedom fighters’ central to American security. Dismissing the connection was much easier than the mental-gymnastics required to rationalize selling ‘crack’ for freedom and security—although the intelligence community held no qualms about it!
In the summer of 1987, Nancy Reagan’s only summer camp visit took place at the Agassiz Village camp in Poland, Maine. It was her first camp visit since the Iran-Contra story broke, and it would be her last camp visit as first lady. She pitched ‘Just Say No’ to 300 children aged six to sixteen, and 100 camp counselors, after which she invited them to declare their commitment to sobriety by signing pledge cards. Only 250 of the 400 attendees signed—a disappointing 62.5 percent. If Hollywood’s depictions of the American summer camp experience have merit, we may assume that commitments to sobriety were lowest among camp counselors. If we move forward under the assumption that counselors monolithically chose Bacchus, or if they were gerrymandered and excluded from pledging, 250 pledges from 300 campers (83.3 percent) is not particularly impressive either, especially if one considers that the age six-to-nine demographic will sign most anything at the prospect of sugar or if the writing utensil produces colour. We may safely assume that the 150 missing pledges came from older campers and counselors.
If Hollywood is wrong, which it usually is, then perhaps there was more to those missing signatures than teenage delinquency. Perhaps the first lady was unable to solicit a high number of sobriety pledges in her final summer camp visit because of the way her message resonated with her audience. The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum describes Camp Agassiz as a summer camp for handicapped children, but this is misleading. Although Agassiz Village integrated children with disabilities into their programming in the 1950s, the camp’s goal was ‘to provide a camping experience for boys from various social agencies, hospitals, clinics and schools in the Greater Boston area’. By the mid-1970s the camp was co-ed, and their doors were open to not only disabled children but children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and communities at the time of Nancy Reagan’s 1987 visit. Further, the camp enjoys a tradition of alumni returning as counselors. Many of these economically disadvantaged campers were likely predisposed to the perils of addiction described in Nancy Reagan’s message, although it wasn’t a dangerous ‘other’ but rather a personal or communal experience. While it is tempting to presume that 150 of Agassiz Village’s campers and counselors chose an iconically dazed and confused American summer camp experience, perhaps they refused to sign because they recognized that the perils of addiction were brought on by the administration’s reforms and/or interventionist policies. Nancy Reagan’s final summer camp visit was a blunder, indicative of the tone deafness of ‘Just Say No’ and America’s failing drug war on the whole.
Richard M. Balzano is a PhD student of History at the University of Reading. He specailses in US foreign policy and inter-American relations in Latin America’s Cold War, and therein intersections of development, human rights and US financial assistance.
 Howard Kany, ‘First lady visits Camp Agassiz Village, Lewiston Daily Sun, 07 July 1987.
 There was a whole office designated to shape the media narrative around Washington’s Latin American engagements. The Office of Public Diplomacy for Latin America and the Caribbean (OPD), run by Otto Reich. The OPD was created by Reagan and its supervision was limited to the US State Department, keeping it insulated from accountability. The OPD unraveled during the Iran-Contra scandal, and it was investigated and shut down after Congress determined it violated US law by projecting propaganda on US citizens. For the OPD, see Greg Grandin, Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism (New York: Metropolitan/Henry Holt, 2006), 124-136, 229. For a goldmine of documents on Reich’s activities, see Thomas Blanton, ed., ‘Public Diplomacy and Covert Propaganda: The Declassified Record of Ambassador Otto Juan Reich’, National Security Archive, Electronic Briefing Book No. 40, 02 March 2001, https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB40/ (accessed 01 July 2021). For a comprehensive account of the Reagan administration’s perception management efforts in Nicaragua, see Eldon Kenworthy, America/Americas: Myth in the Making of U.S. Policy Toward Latin America (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania University Press, 1995).
 The Reagan Doctrine was cast at the 1985 State of the Union address. Reagan’s support for ‘freedom fighters’ implied Washington’s intention to support subversive and insurgent forces when geopolitically convenient.
 Gary Webb, Dark Alliance: The CIA, The Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion (New York: Seven Stories Press, 1999); Robert Parry, ‘How John Kerry exposed the Contra-cocaine scandal’, Salon, 25 October 2004, https://www.salon.com/2004/10/25/contra/ (accessed 02 July 2021). In the spirit of bipartisan fairness, clandestine relationships between US intelligence and international narcotics operations were not unique to Reagan, occurring under administrations ‘across the aisle’ throughout the Cold War. See Alfred McCoy, The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade (Chicago: Lawrence Hill, 2003).
 Parry, ‘How John Kerry exposed the Contra-cocaine scandal’. Parry and Barger’s original piece appeared in AP on 20 December 1985, linking Contra cocaine smuggling to their war financing. The extent to which Contras smuggled and distributed cocaine in the US with intelligence complicity and de facto immunity was explored by Webb, Dark Alliance.
 For an unfortunate number of journalists and people on the whole, challenging the official word of the State Department in real time was enough to brand Webb’s Dark Alliance as a conspiracy. Webb was cannibalized by his own profession, although time has revealed his activist journalism was more accurate than not. Webb claimed ongoing intimidation during and after his research, and, as conspiracies go, his death was ruled a suicide, despite having died from two self-inflicted gunshot wounds… to the head. For controversy over Webb’s journalism, see Greg Grandin, ‘“The New York Times” Wants Gary Webb to Stay Dead’, The Nation, 10 October 2014, https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/new-york-times-wants-gary-webb-stay-dead/ (accessed 01 July 2021).
 One in four persons incarcerated worldwide is in the US. The population of incarcerated persons in the US was 2.3 million as of 2020, which, in perspective, is 6.74 times the population of Iceland. If the US prison population were itself a country, it would have the 145th largest population in the world..
 Parry, ‘How John Kerry exposed the Contra-cocaine scandal’.
 To be fair, the intelligence community was not selling ‘crack’ per se, although the image of a black suit working a Los Angeles street corner in the 1980s makes for an appropriate metaphor. Washington simply allowed Nicaraguans to import cocaine and offered them de facto immunity, and that cocaine was funneled into the hands of notorious drug dealers of the 1980s like Freeway Rick Ross of Los Angeles, who in turn built a narcotics empire on crack-cocaine sales. The appropriate framing is that US intelligence allowed cocaine to be imported… for freedom and national security. See Webb, Dark Alliance.
 Kany, ‘First lady visits Camp Agassiz Village’.
 While it would be almost logical for non-Americans to presume that children who could not read were not required to sign a pledge, it should be reminded that children as young as five years of age are required to pledge their allegiance to the American flag at the start of each school day.
Conducting oral history interviews as well as participant observation are the prerogatives of the modern historian. These methods also need to be carefully learned and critically questioned as the research itself generates primary sources. They require the researcher to make him- or herself vulnerable and it is this vulnerability that can lead to comic and uncomfortable moments, often going hand in hand, at times leaving the researcher having little understanding of the research encounter. Two examples from my Tanzania research in 2001 come to mind. I spent a few weeks at a Benedictine mission station, Peramiho, where the abbot, Lambert Doerr, generously provided support for my interviews and granted access to the monastery archives holding documents in Kiswahili, German, English, French, and Latin. Peramiho is the Benedictines’ main mission station in East Africa, founded in 1898. Soon joined by nuns in 1901, and both brothers and sisters with motherhouses in Bavaria, St Ottilien and Tutzing, one significant contribution the mission has made is through its seminary, the largest in Africa by the year 2000. Staying in the mission guest house was a tremendous luxury after a very long bus ride of almost 1,000 kilometers from Dar es Salaam, with reliable electricity provided by a hydraulic plant, built by the German development agency and overseen by the monks, three meals of German food a day, and a washing machine provided with German washing powder.
Research on the mission station was fabulous but venturing beyond it was a problem. The two rainy seasons had merged into one and the rains never stopped. Assigned as the main interlocutor for my research was Brother Polykarp, a German monk who, I was told, knew the history of the area better than anybody else. I also found a teacher who was willing to serve as interpreter, switching from Kiswahili to Kingoni as the interviews required. My research project examined gender, political authority, slavery, and the slave trade in the Songea area and Brother Polykarp suggested to interview an elder who could share his family memory of having been slaves of the politically dominant Ngoni ethnic group. Because travel even in a four wheel drive was treacherous Brother Polykarp suggested to take an additional man along, Zulu Gama, son of the ruling nkosi (king), ethnically Ngoni, the formerly slave raiding, trading, and owning society.
Mzee Edmund Simba, the elder, was most welcoming and eager to talk. He shared that his grandfather, like so many slaves in the area, joined the German troops during the Maji Maji war of 1905 to 1908. At that time the able-bodied male enslaved population of the area either joined the Germans as auxiliary forces or fought as warriors with their Ngoni owners which was a route to gaining freedom and to changing their ethnicity to Ngoni. Zulu Gama had kept an eye on things outside and mid-interview entered the room. The elder noticed him, established that he was the nkosi’s son, and immediately changed his facial expression, his body language, his intonation, and with excitement in his voice, repeating words and phrases, insisting that I understand the importance of what he was saying, insisting that we all heard what he was telling us, performing with gestures, getting up, sitting down, moving around. Mzee Simba performed the utter humiliation that his grandfather had enacted upon Zulu’s grandfather and his warriors. As casualties were at times significant, so he told us, his grandfather and other slaves went to the killing fields, took the skulls of Ngoni warriors and drank alcohol from them. He recalled this inversion of power, an utter gesture of disgrace with great passion. The point here is that he may not have done so had Zulu not entered the room. The written sources contain an account that the German officers ordered the auxiliary troops to collect skulls, a power gesture, demanding of colonial subjects to touch the untouchable, human remains, probably to do a head count of enemy casualties, possibly to collect trophies. The elder’s recollections in contrast are of empowerment, of slaves proudly imbibing from their defeated masters’ skulls. His performance was triggered by and probably aimed at Zulu Gama, the researcher becoming a facilitator in an ethnic discourse while creating a tremendously important account of the past that complicates colonial history beyond a simple oppressor-oppressed dichotomy.
Brother Polykarp arranged also what I thought would be an audience and hopefully an interview with Nkosi (king) Xaver Gama, Zulu’s father and the ruler of the Ngoni ethnic group in the area. After a warm welcome, being seated with the men, and Brother Polykarp serving as interpreter, I was trying to strike up a conversation with the nkosi. I soon realised that while I had acquired a cultural archive in Zimbabwe that gave me the confidence to know where and how to sit, how to speak and what to say – I lacked this expertise in Tanzania which was further complicated as Kiswahili was not the first language for anybody present. Loosing my linguistic and cultural bearings, I was presented with a huge mango and a sizeable knife. That put me in a conundrum. Was I really to cut it? How was the use of this knife gendered? And if I cut the mango, was I to taste it first or offer the first piece to the nkosi? How was I to cut it? Coastal style? As one of the councillors eventually took over, with me, the white woman, clearly out of her depth, he cut it and indicated for me to eat it. It was a delicious mango, the seed brought into the interior of East Africa by the slave and ivory trade. This was a pre-imperial mango, not yet filled with the fibres that the British introduced by domesticating the trees in India so that they could transport mangos to Europe. As all of this was going through my mind, and I tried to catch some of the conversation in a language I did not speak, Kingoni, when what transpired was that the visit served as a celebration of Brother Polykarp, a true friend of the Ngoni nation. I eventually took the hint that all the much to do was not about me at all. I relaxed into observing unless addressed directly by the nkosi.
It is careful and informed planning in combination with adaptability and letting go of one’s own narratives and assumed authority, it is the making oneself vulnerable, listening for the unexpected, unknown that make a great researcher. In a cross-cultural environment this comes with linguistic translation and it also requires the creation of a cultural archive that provides the researcher with the necessary tools to understand what they hear and to know what to listen for in the first place. With the exception of partisan history, which has its own challenges, historians always research the other – if not across space, then across time. One of the great fallacies of researching in one’s first language, in one’s own country, and certainly from one’s desk is not to take these steps. The result is often unreflective, intent driven research the relevance of which has been increasingly questioned in the last few years by LGBTQ+ activism, Rhodes Must Fall, and by Black Lives Matter. The true challenge is not to conduct research in the hot summer on the equator in the global south but to design and carry out research on the history of the west that has relevance in today’s world.
Dr Heike I. Schmidt is an Associate Professor in African History at the University of Reading, specialising in gender, colonialism, violence & conflict, nationalism, and identity. Dr Schmidt is currently writing a gendered history of violence and the colonial encounter.You can find Part I of this blog here.
 Heike Schmidt, ‘(Re)Negotiating Marginality: The Maji Maji War and Its Aftermath in Southwestern Tanzania, ca. 1905–1916’, The International Journal of African Historical Studies 43, no. 1 (2010), 27-62, ‘”Deadly Silence Predominates in the District:” The Maji Maji War and Its Aftermath in Ungoni,’ in Maji Maji: Lifting the Fog of War, eds James Giblin and Jamie Monson (Leiden, 2010), 183-219, ‘Shaming Men, Performing Power: Female Authority in Zimbabwe and Tanzania on the Eve of Colonial Rule’, in Gendering Ethnicity in African History: Women’s Subversive Performance of Ethnicity, eds. Jan Shetler and Dorothy Hodgson, (Madison, WI, 2015), 265-289.
One unintended outcome of the realities of fieldwork was my research on sexual violence and male same sex desire during the German colonial period. ‘Colonial Intimacy: The Rechenberg Scandal and Homosexuality in German East Africa’, Journal of the History of Sexuality 17, no. 1 (2008): 25-59 and ‘Who is Master in the Colony? Propriety, Honor, and Manliness in German East Africa,’ in German Colonialism in a Global Age, edited by Geoff Eley and Bradley Naranch, (Durham, 2014), and ‘The German Empireand its Legacies:Propriety, Respectability, and Colonial Hegemony, in Colonialisms and Queer Politics:Sexualities, Gender, and Unsettling Colonialities, eds Sonia Corrêa, Gustavo Gomes da Costa Santos, and Matthew Waites (Oxford, forthcoming).
 Interview with mzee Edmund Simba, Mpitimbi, Songea region, 21 March 2001.
 Even though chieftaincy was abolished in 1963, two years after independence from British colonial rule, in some areas chiefs maintain political authority in the eyes of their followers. Interview with Nkosi Xaver Gama, 3 March Ndirima, Songea region.
I knew exactly what I was doing. I planned my fieldwork to utter perfection. After all I was an experienced postdoc, having spent about three years living in Zimbabwe while studying and researching the country’s past. Now working on Tanzania, I had visited the country twice, travelled far and wide to find my ideal field site, started to learn Kiswahili, and won a significant funding bid. What I did not consider is what I could have learned from reading Laura Bohannen’s ‘Shakespeare in the Bush’. Published in 1966, the essay is a classic and read by generations of students. The attention is well deserved. While it is a product of its time, it does an excellent job of showing the fallacies of fieldwork.
A US American, studying for a doctorate in social anthropology at Oxford, Laura Bohannen was just as confident about her research. Alas, the idea of carrying out fieldwork during the rainy season so that the households she intended to observe and people she wanted to interview in rural Nigeria would not be busy with agricultural work did not quite come to fruition as intended. Homesteads became islands as swamp water levels rose and so much alcohol was consumed that Bohannen withdrew to her sleeping hut reading. Eventually elders, tired of her trying to ask them questions, turned the tables and insisted that for a change she tell them a story. Bohannen chose Hamlet, surely a classic. Soon the elders began interrupting her to correct the story line. As she describes becoming cranky and exasperated the brilliance of the essay emerges to the reader, realising that the skill of the researcher is to listen and that listening can only succeed with a critical reflection of one’s positionality. Here Bohannen had to let go of what Hamlet meant to her and the idea of universality. She had to learn to listen to elders sharing knowledge, experience, and thinking different from hers. What makes her essay a must read to this day is that she addresses the core of research skills as well as the practicalities that are involved in fieldwork, all packed into a wonderfully humorous account.
Admittedly the Covid-19 health crisis for the first time in my many years of studying the African past has made me envious of my colleagues who sit comfortably at their computer at home and in their office accessing primary sources online or who can travel locally to an archive and conduct their research. I have even become pensive about my past fieldwork exploits. After all I have managed to catch many infectious diseases from malaria to typhoid, cholera, and both bacterial and amoebic dysentery and twice came very close to death in Africa. I managed to break my back when hitchhiking, sitting on the bed of a lorry in Zimbabwe and hit my head quite badly in an accident in a dala dala (mini bus) in Dar es Salaam on my way to the university. I cannot claim that I enjoyed learning Shona and Kiswahili, my sixth and seventh languages, as a manifestly linguistically challenged person. This is the point where the narrative continues with but – but what will always enthral me, arouse my passion, and put a light into my eyes are the unpredictability and demands on being in this world that make a great field researcher – something to which I lay no claim.
My research in Tanzania was, to reiterate, perfectly planned. At the time, in 2001, Assistentin (assistant professor) at Humboldt University at Berlin, for once I was not travelling alone but with my spouse whose project was on the islands of Zanzibar, while I studied mainland Tanzania. Two days before departing for nine months to East Africa, I returned from a brief visit in the US on a flight sitting close to a group of Pentecostal Americans who chose to sing and pray for hours as members of their congregation invited travellers to join, sharing that they had a bug going around. Stepping off the next plane two days later in Dar es Salaam, the coastal air on my face like a thick, damp, hot cloth, I realised that I was coming down with the flu. The heat of the rainy season was unbearable as my fever spiked. I do not remember much after that for the next few days.
I cannot recommend bringing a winter flue to the summer heat of the Swahili coast. I can also not propose that one can realistically plan one’s fieldwork. Having applied a year before, I had to wait for the research clearance for several months with frequent visits to remind the officials in person that I was wasting my research funds by just living in Tanzania with nothing to do but to improve on my language skills. So I moved from my tiny room in a guest house in Dar es Salaam to join my spouse in stone town, the centre of the capital of the islands of Zanzibar, where he rented a house. Considering myself heat resistant when healthy, I quickly learned that this time the summer heat of the rainy season did me in. Even with nothing to do other than continuing my Kiswahili lessons and learning about Swahili female propriety and sensuality from neighbours and the umma (Muslim community) kindly providing our water supply from one of the many mosques nearby – it was unbearably hot. The incoming rain clouds raised humidity and instead of bringing reprieve had me lying under the fan that did not work without electricity. I lay there waiting for the neighbourhood boys running through the streets shouting ‘Umeme! Umeme! (electricity!) as most days the power came on for one hour, albeit at any point during day or night. I spent a lot of time imagining new superlatives beyond excruciating.
In the end, my nine months in Tanzania were much shaped by the usual two rainy seasons turning into one long rain that simply never seemed to end. A joke that ran through the newspapers – with photographic evidence – was that when the president with his security detail was inspecting the flood damage in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s main city, one of the secret service cars hit a pothole so deep that it sank completely, and the agents were scrambling to get out of it not to drown. In fact, one day in the city center I saw a woman walking towards me, crossing a street disappearing to her shoulders in a pothole, invisible under the water that appeared to be just ankle deep. In Dar es Salaam my thirty minute walk to the National Archives, with the last stretch on a dirt road, became too precarious. Civil servants working in the area and other passers-by built fords with stones and bricks for pedestrians but those had started to be covered by the rising water as well.
Some days I travelled to the archives taking a cab. The driver deadpanned that all we needed was a fishing rod for me to hold out of the car window as he very slowly and carefully made his way to the archives. None of this is to say that research in Africa is exotic and dangerous. This is not least confirmed by recent manifestations of climate change and environmental challenges to human life in the west with floods and fires. The global south, including Africa, offers a research environment that challenges the researcher to listen by being flexible, adaptable, and to negotiate and explore the boundaries and especially the certainties of one’s life. As frustrating as it may be at times, the true joy of being a historian is the unpredictable.
Dr Heike I. Schmidt is an Associate Professor in African History at the University of Reading, specialising in gender, colonialism, violence & conflict, nationalism, and identity. Dr Schmidt is currently writing a gendered history of violence and the colonial encounter.
 Laura Bohannen, ‘Shakespeare in the Bush’, Natural History (August-September 1966), 28-33. A rare treatment of fieldwork for historians is Carolyn Adenaike and Jan Vansina, eds, In Pursuit of History: Fieldwork in Africa (Portsmouth, NH, 1996).
 This made for interesting, brief windows of editing African Modernities: Entangled Meanings in Current Debate eds Jan-Georg Deutsch, Peter Probst, Heike Schmidt (Portsmouth/NH and Oxford, 2002).
There are certain images from the mass media that, as a child of the 1980s growing up in America, are ubiquitous to summer for me. The 1961 Disney film, The Parent Trap, staring Hayley Mills is one of them. Mills, who plays the role of twin sisters separated by their divorced parents, meet up at Camp Inch, a summer camp for girls in the middle of the woods. Beyond the humorous antics and the rose-coloured family dynamics, to me the idea of summer camp was solidified by the wooden planked bunk houses, canoes across a dark mountain lake and innocent flirting with the boy’s camp ‘down the way’, even though I never attended one of these fabled camps.
Now, more years than I care to admit to later, I come across a different kind of summer camp. One that feels just as nostalgic, but that had very different consequences: the school harvest camps of the world wars. Let’s take a step back though and try to see the big picture. In 1914, the official school leaving age for children in England and Wales was 12-years-old. This meant at twelve students could ‘graduate’ from school and start working, which many of them did. In the agricultural areas, some went on to join the Young Farmer’s Clubs or even the Farm Institutes before potentially going off to an agricultural college or university. However, the idea of child labour became a sticking point in Parliament, where the official government decision was to give no decision.
Prime Minister Asquith (1915) stated that the question should be left up to the local education authorities to decide on their particular regions’ needs. MP T. Williams stated that same year that an estimated 45,000 boys and girls had participated in the various camps and that he anticipated at least the same amount would be needed the following year, which sounds less like ‘volunteering’ and more like being ‘voluntold’. Still, it took a combination of school children, women’s land army members, prisoners of war and soldiers to bring in the harvest due to the acute labour shortage over the next few years.
When World War Two came about, the situation wasn’t much better, but certain lessons had been learned. The Women’s Land Army was stronger than ever, POWs were used more extensively and civilians, both adults and children, were put to work on ‘holidays’ at farm harvest camps across the country and managed by the Ministry of Agriculture. In 1943, the Minister of Agriculture R.S. Hudson hinted that the extra 150-200,000 adults and over 300,000 school children needed to bring in the harvest could potential become conscripted should not enough volunteers be found. Yet the term volunteer is a slight misnomer, not for the conscripted part, ironically, but for the implied non-payment part. Those working the land for a week or two during the summer and harvest seasons were paid at set rates, though that amount was, in many instances, not enough to cover their room and board. For example, wages in 1939 were 6d-8d an hour while room and board was 11s. a week. This did rise slightly when in 1941, school holidays were timed to coincide with the harvests. Children aged 14 (now the school leaving age) were permitted a maximum of 22 half-days a year away from school as well as received the minimum wage for agricultural workers which was around £3/week. Though some school groups were paid by the product.
Peter Clarke (South Lincolnshire) was part of a gang of 12 and 13-year-old boys and girls (around 20) that were sent from farm to farm and allocated jobs such as driving the horse, picking potatoes, weeding and even ploughing.
“Although this was hard work and several children did not last the full time most of us found it great fun and had a sense of helping the War effort,” Peter said to the BBC in 2003. “[We received] about one shilling and sixpence (7.5p) per bag [of peas], which weighed 28lbs and took about 4 hours to fill. If it was underweight, it would be rejected. [While, f]or early potatoes the pay was three shillings (15p) a day. Working under the control of the school we received one shilling and ninepence (13p) per day”.
Daphne Jones (Warwickshire) was a 15-year-old student learning typing and shorthand when she was sent off to the first Farming Camp School in 1944. She remembers that they would study agricultural related matters in the morning and then help on the land in the afternoon weeding onions, digging potatoes and picking strawberries. Jean Ramsell (Yorkshire) was 17 when she volunteered for her first farm camp. “Much of the work involved potatoes in one form or another,” she remembers, “but another job was gathering flax that had been ‘laid’ i.e. flattened by the rain and couldn’t be harvested by machine. It all had to be pulled out by its roots and it could cut your hands”. As a female, certain issues arose that the boys didn’t seem to mind. “We had no access to the loos. Of course, the men could just disappear behind a hedge but it sometimes caused a problem. In one field there were some low triangular hen houses of a kind that I don’t think you see now and we often got the giggles crouching down in these. Fortunately, there were no hens at the time”.
While such work was often typical for rural children, the experiences were new and exciting for urban school children who were now being led by their teacher into the hedgerows and forested areas in the search for windfalls, medicinal plants such as foxglove, yarrow, rose-hips and other plants of medicinal value for the nation’s pharmacies. Some schools ‘adopted’ local farms and went to help with tasks such as rat-catching and poultry plucking, or students worked on their school farm and allotments raising pigs, bees and sheep.
Working during breaks was fine, but the fight came when the Ministry of Labour suggested making the children work during term time, as part of their compulsory education. Such an action was illegal as per the Education Act and the 1933 Children and Young Persons Act and met with fierce opposition from the various educational unions. “A Durham headmaster told the 1950 conference of the National Association of Headteachers that during the previous year he had been confronted by an irate farmer complaining that eight boys working on his farm had gone on strike – merely because they had been given no time to rest during the day! This lack of compassion and understanding did little to endear the generality of farmers to teachers and the Board of Education.”
Such concerns were brought up in Parliament, though little was done to mitigate them. The camps did in fact continue until 1951 when they were finally disbanded, however discussions remained in the House of Commons and the National Farmer’s Union and Ministry of Agriculture and in Lincolnshire alone eight camps occurred in 1950, seven in 1951 and six in 1952, a shrinking number, but one that persists until this day. Of course, there are no air raids, doodlebugs or POWs working beside them and the activities are much more relaxed, more in line with the glorified summer fun of Disney’s Camp Inch where we started than the dirty and potentially dangerous war work of just a few decades ago. Still interviews from the children that attended these harvest camps show a time of childhood innocence and excitement at getting out of school and doing their bit for Queen and Country.
Perhaps that’s the true lesson here. That feeling of nostalgia that suffuses the public imagination of a period which was not rosy and happy, but in many respects a time of hardship and sacrifice. However, the volunteers who took their two-week vacation from the factory and school yard and helped bring in the harvests came together in common cause. As Jean Ramsell explained, “You didn’t expect to make any money – that was not the object of it. In the spirit of the time, you all pulled together and were united by the fact that it was wartime and you all wanted to do your bit”.
Tamisan Latherow is a second year PhD Candidate in the School of Agriculture, Policy and Development at the University of Reading researching women’s participation in English agriculture (1920-1960) in conjunction with The Museum of English Rural Life and agroecological farming systems for Martian food production with the School of Biological Sciences.
 Moore-Colyer, R. (2004). Kids in the Corn: School Harvest Camps and Farm Labour Supply in England, 1940–1950. The Agricultural History Review, 52(2), 183-206. Retrieved July 13, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40275928
 Farmers Weekly, 2 June 1950, in Moore-Colyer, R. (2004). Kids in the Corn: School Harvest Camps and Farm Labour Supply in England, 1940–1950. The Agricultural History Review, 52(2), 183-206. Retrieved July 13, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40275928
In the first blog in this summer series, my colleague Ruth Salter invited us to hang up our umbrellas and celebrate the role played by St Swithin in our summer weather. While Ruth encouraged us to turn our eyes to the heavens, I was musing on the connections between manipulation of the weather, and, well… the other place.
That connection is not as tenuous as it sounds. We know that extremes of weather can leave an indelible mark on collective memory, and it is hardly surprising that these events are reflected in miracle collections, sermons, providential writings and discourses on the supernatural.
The summer of 1666 was so hot and dry that the diarist Samuel Pepys made the prescient observation that ‘even the stones were reading to burst into flames.’ But when the tinderbox ignited, the Great Fire was attributed to the wrath of God, and a day of fasting, prayer and repentance declared for October. That same mindset is evident in the anonymous A True Report of Certain Wonderful Overflowing of Waters(1607) in which such weather events were described explicitly as a call to ‘tremble, be fore-warned, Amend.’
We can see here a reciprocal relationship between weather and human imagination within which it is read and interpreted. And that relationship exposes the extent to which the sky and the land were – and are – a palimpsest on which successive human generations have inscribed their faith and their fears.
In the early modern period, these ideas started to crystallise around the formidable figure of the witch, capable of unleashing storms that caused widespread disruption. The authors of the Malleus Maleficarum (1486) established a clear connection between witchcraft and the weather, including first-hand encounters with witches who used demonic magic to conjure hail.
In response to what was interpreted as a politically-charged act of weather magic in 1589, more than 100 suspected witches were arrested, tortured, and condemned in the area around North Berwick. And when storms swept across Europe in 1562 they left in their wake a sense of panic which was fuelled by preachers and cheap popular print. Sixty-three witches were burned in the German town of Wiesensteig.
References to climate permeated other cultural forms – in A Midsummer Night’s Dream cataclysmic floods left the fold ‘empty in the drownèd field’ while Titania declares ‘the summer still doth tend upon my state.’ Prospero can cause a storm in The Tempest, and the rain and thunder that attends the three witches of Macbeth establish an association between witchcraft and weather.
Torrential rain, storms, and flooding were certainly to be feared, but how do we get to the point at which a fear of climate created a climate of fear in which demonic witchcraft loomed large?
Part of the answer to that question lies in what is often referred to as the ‘Little Ice Age.’ Between c.1300 and c.1850, Europe experienced bitterly cold winters and cool wet summers. Seas and rivers froze, fish migrated to warmer waters, and crops failed, and famines followed.
The English chronicler John Stow recorded near-continuous rain between May and July 1594, and further ‘greate raines’ in September. Rivers swelled, and destroyed vital bridges. Simon Forman’s diary paints an equally dismal picture of a summer “very wet and wonderful cold like winter, that the 10 dae of Julii many did syt by the fyer yt was so cold.” An unusually chilly spring disrupted crop-growing the following year, in a cycle that was repeated across Europe for decades to come.
But such weather itself did not cause witch hunts. A fear of climate might create a climate of fear, but the link between witchcraft and weather events was the product of the linguistic, cultural and religious interpretations that were layered onto personal and collective crises. Witches, providence, and miracles each provided a language of causation that constructed meaning, established accountability, and offered a solution in the face of disaster.
Fifty year ago, in his history of the Mediterranean, Fernand Broedel suggested that humanity was a ‘prisoner of climate.’ I read the opening pages of his book with my second year class as a route into thinking about the ways that climate and landscape shape cultures, societies and beliefs. And yes, we read it in the context of a much sharper awareness of the extent to which we are not just the creation of climate, but also its creators. But the complexities of the human imagination and its imprint on culture, nature and environment demand a better understanding of our history, and enable a more nuanced and ‘human’ response to the challenges of the present.
Helen Parish is Professor in History at the University of Reading, with interests in the history of belief, broadly understood, in the early modern period.
An earlier article on connections between meteorology, magic, and miracles in early modern Europe was published inThe Conversation on 14th July 2021.
If you are anything like me you will be thinking that after what felt like a prolonged grey, cold winter it feels like we should’ve turned a corner into summer. I suppose it’s mild at least and that’s almost enough to break out into a rendition of Reading Abbey’s own thirteenth-century composition ‘Sumer is icumen in’ … almost (you’d have to be a better singer than me for that though!).
Of course, as is always the case with the British weather, there’s no guarantee that it will stay warm, and it’s looking like this summer might be a bit of a washout, if this rain continues! But, what does any of this have to do with St Swithun, Winchester’s saintly ninth-century bishop?
Swithun (d. 863) was a Winchester churchman through and through, rising to the position of bishop of Winchester in c. 852-4. However, it is his posthumous work, as a saint and miracle worker, that Swithun is best known for. Among various miracles of aiding and healing those who petitioned him for his aid, a curious reputation has become attached to Swithun and his feast day, 15 July – oh, wait, that’s today!
This superstition is perhaps best summed up in the words of the following Elizabethan poem:
St Swithin’s day if thou dost rain,
For forty days it will remain,
St Swithin’s day if thou be fair,
For forty days will rain na mair.
Where does this folkloric tradition come from? Well, the earliest-known textual reference of weather prophecy in relation to Swithun comes from a manuscript now held by Emmanuel College, Cambridge, that dates from the late thirteenth to early fourteenth century. However, the claim is backdated to the translation of Swithun’s tomb in the tenth century. This translation (the moving of a saint’s tomb or reliquary, or the moving of a saint into a new tomb or reliquary) occurred on the anniversary of Swithun’s death, his feast day, 15 July 971.
According to the later texts, the moving of his body from its initial burial place outside the church into Winchester Old Minster was proceeded by a storm that lasted (as the above poem states) for forty days. From this grew a tradition that if it rained on 15 July it would rain for the next six weeks.
Now, while Swithun is pretty amazing (I’ve always had a soft spot for him), it would be fair to say that this belief sounds like superstition. But, that doesn’t mean that there’s not some truth about the weather patterns between mid-July and the end of August. While I am all for encouraging my students (as well they know!) to understand sources and beliefs within their own time, this is one occasion where a little modern meteorological know-how actually adds to our understanding of this idea…
Why? Well, it has to do with the jet stream and its positioning. As meteorologist Derek Brockway (among others) has highlighted, the jet stream’s position in the middle of July can impact on the weather for the remainder of the summer. If it’s north of the UK, then we can expect warmer, drier weather. However, if it’s over the UK this causes low pressure and wetter weather.
Although it is unlikely to rain continually for forty days, prolonged wet weather during the summer can feel like it drags on. So, if it rains on St Swithun’s day will it rain until late August? Probably not. But, does this old association with the saint’s feast day and the weather have some grounding in meteorology? Yes.
So, let’s hope that this year we get good weather on 15 July and that both Swithun and the jet stream permit us a warm, dry summer!
Dr Ruth J. Salter is a lecturer in Medieval History at the University of Reading. Keep up with her blog ‘Medieval Miracles, Medicine and Miscellany’ here.
 This blog post can also be found on Ruth’s own blog.