Guest Post: British Group in Early American History Conference Recap

Today’s guest post comes from Abigail B. Chandler, an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell.

The annual British Group of Early Americanists Conference was held from September 3-6 at the University of Sheffield in Sheffield, England and drew a wide variety of scholars from the United Kingdom, the United States and France. In keeping with BGEAH traditions, there were many excellent papers, a key note address on Thursday night, a book club discussion on Friday and a conference dinner on Saturday, while newer traditions were started with some panels providing pre-circulated papers.

There was no set theme for the conference but discussions about identity, cultural exchanges, economics and, in the words of Trevor Burnard (Melbourne University) in his opening address on Thursday night, fear, linked together many of the panels. Trevor’s paper, in particular, raised the question of whether the fear customarily attributed to colonial planters worrying about the possibility of their slaves revolting should, instead, be seen as the levels of fear inflicted on, their slaves; while also assessing how scholars often apply the political ideas of Thomas Hobbes to their analyses and how they should be applying said ideas. Later in the conference, the use of fear resurfaced in a panel on Saturday afternoon titled “Creative Destruction: Port Cities, Pirates, and Promising Appearances” where it was again analyzed as a tool for economic success for some members of colonial society.

Many panels opened up exchanges with each other, including the use of material objects and images to study military, economic and maritime history in the “Material Culture in Early National America” panel on Saturday morning and the “Across the Waters” panel on Saturday afternoon. In both panels, these objects and images served to unite the often separate spheres of home and battlefield and the Atlantic ocean and the people who live alongside it. These connections then opened up space for new questions to be asked about the range of ways in which people experienced the broader Atlantic world, whether wearing musket balls as necklaces, paddling canoes between cultures or naming culinary dishes for political figures.

Another exchange between multiple panels was an emphasis on networks, whether personal or diplomatic. If the “Kinship and Migration Networks” panel on Friday morning asked conference attendees to consider personal networks between people who shared similar cultural identities, both the “John Adams’s Nation” panel on Friday afternoon and the  “America from the Outside In and Inside Out” panel on Saturday afternoon emphasized the American need to build diplomatic networks during the Revolution and afterwards. The first sets of networks were often bolstered by the fact that their participants usually shared similar cultural identities or political and economic goals, but the later diplomatic ones sometimes struggled to overcome misunderstandings or different political interests and goals. Regardless, the emphasis on networks and shared interests was an appropriate one for a conference with such a wide range of attendees.

The Book Club on Friday evening featured Andrew Beaumont (Oxford University) talking about the research and ideas behind his newly published Colonial America and the Earl of Halifax, 1748-1761 (Oxford University Press, 2015). His talk led to a lively discussion comparing eighteenth-century politics and wars to early twenty-first century politics and wars, and whether the statements of a former American politician can be applied to the 1760s and 1770s– no consensus was reached on that point. And for anyone looking for a new research project, there is a long list of British politicians in need of biographies, which means that there will be much more source material for future discussions.

Finally, the conference finished with a celebratory dinner at the Milestone Restaurant in Sheffield where a total of 49 toasts were drunk alongside multiple plates of food almost too beautiful to eat. And I would like to close this recap with my thanks to conference organizer and host Simon Middleton- it was a great few days!

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