XQs XIX - A Conversation with Harmony Siganporia

Posted by qainchi on December 18, 2019 · 37 mins read

[The XQs (Ten Questions) series is a conversation with the authors of new and exciting works in South Asian Studies, whose aim is not to “review” but to contextualize, historicize, and promote new scholarship. We thank Uttara Shahani for conducting this interview. Previously: I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, XI, XII, XIII, XIV, XV, XVI, XVII, XVIII]

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Harmony Siganporia teaches in the area of Culture and Communication at MICA-India. She has a Ph.D. in social history, and her research areas include the making of modern India, gender and performativity, culture and conflict, Gandhi, and semiotic theory. Her first book, I am the Widow: An Intellectual Biography of Behramji Malabari (2018) has been awarded the Prof. Sneh Mahajan Award for the best book on modern Indian history (2015 to 2018) by the Indian History Congress.

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Q. Your book is an examination of the Parsi social reformer Behramji Merwanji Malabari’s (1853-1912) writings and the context in which he lived. He was a poet, journalist, ethnographer, and advocate of social reform, particularly concerned with child marriage and enforced widowhood among Hindus. He is the subject of two biographies. What drove you to resurrect Malabari and write another biography on him?

I keep going back to an incident I wrote about in the Introduction, which I think summarizes why I felt the need to work on Malabari. When Gandhi’s associate Henry Polak was visiting India in 1909, Gandhi said he would want him to meet two of India’s “foremost” leaders and men of letters–Gopalkrishna Gokhale, the editor of the Times of India, and Malabari, who, then, had the bulk of his lifework behind him. It’s a far cry from there to a mere few years later, when, after a last biography is written by his friend and associate Jogendra Singh soon after his death (1914), Malabari falls through the cracks of histories. He disappears from the histories of national social reform as well as more specific accounts of the internal Parsi reform movement. The latter, he was clearly a part of and did much to foment, alongside one of its most important players, his long-time friend and collaborator, Dadabhai Naoroji. This led me to postulate that Malabari was not Parsi enough for the Parsis–whom he had criticized for ‘lapsing’ into the customs he and other reformers were trying to weed out of society. Parsi dasturs (priests) came in for particular criticism, from Malabari, for being illiterate and incapable of birthing the community into ‘modernity’. Malabari thought the dasturs were enmeshing the community in the endless and incomprehensible rites and rituals of their own devising. To the Parsis, Malabari appeared too removed, too engaged with the national language of social reform. They did not feel the need to heed the particulars or parole of his address.

This is what drew me to him: Malabari is a liminal figure who queers binaries like nationalist/loyalist, Parsi/’Indian’, reformer/revivalist—showing us how intimately related these positions, and the subjectivities they allowed and created were in the late-19th century. The discursive field of social reform changed beyond recognition once Gandhi returned from South Africa in 1915. Positions which, until that time, were counter or peripheral to the hegemonic imagination of the colonial state soon became central—appearing less radical than the context that had given them operational validity in the dying years of the 19th century. Malabari’s story was indicative of this change, and I was interested in teasing out this larger epistemic shift through the figure of this fascinating quasi-ethnographer-poet-journalist-reformer.

Q. The Parsi magistrate and historians Dosabhai Karaka, Dadabhai Naoroji, and British judges and scholars were among those who suggested that many of the regressive practices Parsis followed were due to Hindu influence. The orientalist construction of the Parsis was that they were the westernized community par excellence of India; they understood and were the most aligned to western ideas of ‘progress’ and modernity. These ideas suggest an idea of Parsi ‘otherness’. However, your book suggests that Malabari distanced himself from this concept of Parsi ‘alien-ness’, for instance, in his criticism of the Parsi dasturs (priests), who took tea with European officials but not with the Hindu or the Muslim. Malabari saw himself as a code-switcher, and as a ‘translator’ between cultures; between the rulers and the ruled. Would you say that in some ways Malabari consciously subverted the image of the Anglicised Parsi? What were the implications of this?

This ties in nicely with where I stopped in response to your first question. I’ve long been interested in where the myth of Parsi exceptionalism drew its vitality from? To my mind, it goes back to the moment in the 19th century when the community begins to, under inherited and internalized colonialist frameworks of knowledge-building, write its history and historiography. Their efforts were framed by the ways in which history and anthropology, as they existed in the late-19th century, allowed them to imagine a particular story to frame their past. As Eckehard Kulke (1975) and others have since pointed out—it was through various streams of migration from across Gujarat’s rural centers and cities over a period of approximately 150 years, that the Parsi community started providing Bombay with its mercantile and trading classes.

What becomes clear from engaging with the corpus of mid-19th century Parsi reformers like Naoroji, Furdoonji and others (and what connects them to someone like Malabari, who rises on the scene a few decades after them) is that the impetus for reform—–although it might have manifested in more visible changes within the Parsi community owing to the fact that many of the leading practitioners of the movement were in fact Bombay Parsis–—was never intended to be limited to their community alone. Its scope was much larger, as is evidenced in Malabari’s campaigns on raising the age of consent for Indian women, or enforcing widow remarriage, which were truly ‘national’ efforts at reorganization and social change. However, since he believed in seeking legislation—from a “foreign” government—to bring these changes about, he lay himself open to charges of being, as Vishwanath Narayan Mandlik once called him a “Luther of Rose and Lavender”—a “western” reformer—to be distrusted twice over, for being Parsi and Anglicised. Malabari tried to subvert this trope in myriad ways, even as he reinforced it in others—by writing the veritable colonial textbook that is Gujarat and the Gujaratis (1882) from a simultaneously emic and etic position, for example. As a translator and interpreter, both literally as well as metaphorically, Malabari essayed to render visible and legible the lives of those, the Empire could or would not deem as worthy of engagement. In his writings, and reactions generated to them from around the world, are some of the most interesting facets of language politics in late-nineteenth century colonial India.

Q. As you point out, colonial administrators believed there was no such thing as ‘Parsi law’. Parsis went on to formulate a ‘Parsi code’ and as Mitra Sharafi (2014) has shown, they internalized British Indian law to an ‘extreme degree’. There was a readiness to connect law with Parsi social life. Several Parsis later sought to apply this law-centered approach to ‘national’ agendas for social and cultural reform. Some amongst them believed that by defining marital rights they were the first to ‘raise’ women to a higher social position. Sharafi illustrates the engagement of Parsi women with the courts. What was the impetus behind Malabari and the wider Parsi community turning their preoccupation with the law as an instrument of social reform and their gaze ‘outward’, in seeking to ‘reform’ other communities and did the trajectories of Parsi women’s engagement with the colonial legal system shape Malabari’s own perspective?

We cannot really know how much the trajectory of Parsi women’s engagement with the colonial legal machinery shaped Malabari’s own perspective on the suitability of this method to bring about the societal reform he sought. Still, his faith in the supposed impersonality of the colonial legal system as an institution is easily explained. As historian Sudhir Chandra argues in the context of the extremely contentious Rukhmabai case (1884-1887) that, “faith in colonialism, despite an understanding of its exploitative-ness was the paradox of educated consciousness in colonial India” (Chandra 1992: 17). That it manifest as a “belief, which never came to be tested, in the certainty of a favourable verdict from the Privy Council” (Chandra 1998: 112). There is, at this point in British India, for a subject like Malabari, a faith in morality and in a ‘natural’ sense of justice which Malabari held the British were attempting to dispense in the colony.

The ‘women’s question’, when Malabari engages with it, is decidedly a social problem: attitudes he thinks can be modified—what in hindsight feels ludicrously naive—with a mix of minimal legislation (to enforce the age of consent, say), and education. This is also his legacy as the inheritor of the mantle of Naoroji and other Parsi reformers, for whom the mandate was a simple one. Naoroji writes of his years before leaving for England, in 1855, that they were “full of all sorts of reforms, social, educational, political, religious…Female education, free association of women with men at public, social and other gatherings, infant schools, the ‘Students’ Literary and Scientific Society’, Societies for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge in the Vernacular, Parsi reform, abolition of child marriages, remarriage of widows among Hindus,” (Naoroji 1910: 656). This, read alongside Malabari’s firm belief—that while the social was the political, social reform had to precede political change—suggests that his engagement with the ‘women’s question’ was still one with blind spots which betray the bounds of his conception of the categories in question.

Q. The mercantile Parsis of Bombay took to philanthropy in a big way. Malabari linked ‘charity’ and ‘welfare’ to ‘patriotism.’ Was ‘welfare’ a form of ‘reform’ or of finding legitimation for a minority community? Could you expand on what Malabari meant by ‘patriotism’ here? Why had philanthropy and ‘welfare’ become so important to the Bombay Parsis and why did Malabari place so much emphasis on it?

What Malabari seems to be speaking about when he invokes the idea of patriotism is what is going to become, in a couple of decades into the 20th century, recognizable as the Gandhian notion of sacrifice: suffering and privation visited upon the self in the name of a perceptible, collective ‘greater good’. As Chandra notes of Malabari, “Sensitive in his own life to the need for convergence between precept and practice, and between ends and means, he (Malabari) was among the first in colonial India to propose personal sacrifice—martyrdom—as an instrument of social action” (Chandra 1998: 26). This is a fact borne out by Malabari’s life. In an article on the ‘Causes of Infant Marriage’ in the Indian Spectator, Malabari states categorically that, “we must think of our country more than of ourselves” (Malabari 1884: 794), adding in another piece just a few weeks later that, “If India is to reform herself, she ought to have an army of martyrs scattered over all centers of activity…we know that martyrdom is the highest development of the purest form of patriotism, a spirit of absolute, unconditional self-denial” (1884: 848). He reprises this theme yet again in The Indian Eye on English Life (1891), stating that, “the highest life for all of us is self-surrender. Let us pour out for others our gifts of mind and heart, so that on the day appointed we may be able to stand in the Presence of Grace, not as strangers or slaves, but in the assurance of conscious kinship with our Maker, and whisper to Him with filial confidence, ‘Father, Yes.’” (Malabari 1895: 110).

I hesitate to locate this within the confines of a Parsi sensibility, because the missionary education overtones are equally amply on display. I suspect that there is a connection between these categories, but it is not one I explore explicitly in the book, choosing instead, since this is an intellectual biography attempting to read the negotiations between Malabari’s life and life-work and the period in question, to see what these categories, as defined by him, allow us to infer about this liminal moment.

Q. When he wrote in Gujarati, Malabari could choose Sanskritised Gujarati rather than ‘Parsi-Gujarati’ and fashioned himself a Hindu reformer. For him, social reform seemed to be part of a process of giving significance to a ‘golden’ Hindu past, which, in a way, your book suggests, he claimed as his own. Malabari argued that child-marriage had socio-economic ramifications for Hindus. He also argued that early marriage would spawn a ‘deteriorated race’ making a eugenicist argument about the deterioration of the Hindus. In these claims one can see the connections between the ‘liberal’ reformists and the Hindu revivalists. Or was his claim to a golden Hindu past, that had to be revived economically, socially and biologically, a way for Malabari to gain support amongst the conservatives who defended Brahmanical patriarchy, and opposed colonial interference in the Hindu domestic sphere, more so because he was a Parsi?

Your question pre-supposes my answer in full: Malabari is making arguments ranging from the biologically essentialist (and eugenicist) to the economic and the scriptural, and evoking the tired trope of a Golden Hindu past, in a bid to paper over the significant challenges that were being mounted against him and his campaigns. More specifically, these challenges were the decade long struggle to have the “Age of Consent Bill” (1891) passed (it raised the age of consent for Indian women from 10 to 12 years of age) in conservative Brahminical-patriarchal circles. The opposition to Malabari, as I suggest earlier, is two-fold: his Parsi-ness is to be distrusted in some quarters and his insistence on legislative reform in others. This feels like a strategically essentialist choice for him to have made, to navigate the minefield that was the contentious space which strove to etch and demarcate the life-world of a Hindu woman. Equally though, I am mindful of the fact that these could easily have been positions which made sense to one such as Malabari. To him, these categories made sense read alongside each other: for example, both factions were clear that change was non-negotiable, and that it would lead to ‘sudhar’ (making better)—another word for reform, in Gujarati. What differed in both notions was how to get there, and where ‘there’ was.

Also, while it was vital to remember what social evils needed to be fought against, it was essential to sometimes make a case for what it was one was fighting for. And it is in this respect that the trope—socially constructed and contextually shape-shifting as it necessarily is—of a golden past may have served as a useful and familiar category for the reformist brigade to deploy, in a bid to garner support from what could only have been antagonistic factions on the revivalist/orthodox side.

Q. As Malabari argued, caste had a strong connection to the ‘women’s question’. Did he recognise that mainstream patriarchal Brahmanical codes could differ from other customary practices? The Rukhmabai case also pointed to these contradictions as she was from the Suthar caste which permitted divorce. At one stage Malabari believed that caste was ‘retreating’, but then seems to have changed his mind. How did he link caste to the questions of widow remarriage and enforced widowhood and the operation of the “Widow Remarriage Act 1856”?

It seems obvious to Malabari that caste, gender, and religion intersect to create a set of very nearly insurmountable obstacles for women in particular. As with so much in his later life, I suspect the beginnings of this understanding, and, equally, how these constructs may be challenged, lie squarely in something he witnessed his mother do when he was a child. He eulogized this act in a piece in his first English collection of poetry, The Indian Muse in English Garb (1876) titled ‘Nature Triumphant over Caste.’ The ‘action’ of this poem is culled directly out of an incident involving Malabari’s mother suckling a starving infant she found abandoned at her doorstep, oblivious to its caste, religion or creed. The only facets Malabari changes in the poem are the setting, by way of narrative space and time; the religion/caste of his protagonist; and the fact that, unlike his mother, the poem’s protagonist is a widow. So, in Malabari’s poem, we have a young Hindu widow who is the only one to take pity on a “waif deserted” Mahar infant, “none could touch a thing so vile; none so devoid of self; thus would have died the poor exile, but for some timely help” (Malabari 1876: 35). The child’s piteous cries compel the young widow, herself a mother, to attend to it, even though she knows acutely the consequences of her actions because, as a widow, her existence is already one of precarity with regard to mainstream society. In this act—that moment when humanity and compassion triumph over caste—“sweet mercy’s waves” drown all that is coarse and worst in us, and give this young widow the strength to brave whatever will come her way. Such narratives as this, written by Malabari, full of hope and bespeaking the quiet strength imperative to any challenging of normativity. This is a prerequisite to reform, and are often subject matter for Malabari even in his capacity as a poet, when he is not compelled to adopt or further his reformist parole.

You’re right about Rukhmabai. The customary practices in her milieu meant that widow remarriage, for instance, was commonplace—her own mother had remarried, and happily. Rukhmabai’s step-father was by all accounts a loving parent, who encouraged his step-daughter’s education. However, Malabari is mindful of the spaces between customary practices which allow certain people access to certain rights at certain moments, and a code which would be more fulsome in its ability to afford these same rights to people whose socio-cultural identities would have left them outside the scope of the former’s jurisdiction. Hence his insistence on seeing through the passage of something like the Age of Consent Bill, which afforded a tiny modicum of relief to all Indian women, regardless of their caste/creed/religion, at a time when, as he put it, they needed it most, when their bodies were still in maturation, between the ages of 10 and 12. This may not sound like much, but it paved the way for further revisions upwards in years to come.

Q. Rachel Sturman (2012) has argued debates about women and the Hindu law were debates about the nature of the colonial state itself. Malabari campaigned for significant changes in the law and other administrative changes to discourage child marriage but at the same time was a keen critic of the colonial state and its ability to address questions of child marriage and consent. At one point you show that he seemed to be thoroughly antagonistic to the project of empire itself when he accuses the government of ‘grinding the womanhood out of the women of Hindustan’. He accused the government of being willing to interfere when suppressing sati and ruling against infanticide but of being duplicitous when it came to acting against child marriage and enforced widowhood. While Rukhmabai was being heard, Malabari argued that a court-ordered restitution of conjugal rights where one of the parties was unwilling was an English import and alien to Hindu law. In doing so was he absolving Hindus of their complicity in upholding these laws? Could you discuss the contradictions in the ‘loyalist’ Malabari’s relationship with the colonial state?

This question cuts to the heart of the book, where the effort was to explore, through the figure of one such as Malabari what it might have meant to be ‘nationalist’ during the late 19th century, or what it meant to be a ‘loyalist’ during this period, because these were not, as I argue, always mutually exclusive propositions at this moment in history. How, in the Foucauldian sense, could one have framed or articulated these signifiers, except in the context of a discursive field which, by definition, already (always) curated the range of possible positionalities available to inhabit? Faith in the inherent—because these offices were impersonal—‘objectivity’ that was meant to be the hallmark of the colonial justice machinery. This meant that for Dadabhai Naoroji and his ilk, lapses in the delivery of justice were markedly ‘un-British’. Especially with the Rukhmabai case, when it became clear that not only was Dadaji filing for a ‘restitution’ of marriage rights which, as you highlight, Malabari and other reformers were called out for being an English importation since it had already been struck from the law books ‘at home’ by the time this case was being heard in Bombay in the mid-1880s. There was an enlarging of the scope of what was meant by restitution at all (Dadaji counsel sought to have the court deem ‘institution’—since Rukhmabai’s marriage with Dadaji had never been consummated—was a part of ‘restitution’. The reformist brigade had to make every argument at their disposal, and if some of them wound up sounding reactionary or revivalist, alluding to a so-called golden past untainted by the sordidness of the present, then so be it.

Also, as I argue in the chapter on Malabari’s pamphlets, he makes a clean distinction between the Government of India, and its master, the Government at ‘home’, suggesting that the former might stand in for the latter in the form of its ‘local’ voice and manifestation, but it does not possess any of the latter’s power to adjudicate in the favor of ‘its’ citizenry. The one, in other words, may be critiques without damaging the credibility of the mission of the other, the project and scope of which is larger and more complex, and therefore, in a sense, indemnified from suspicion.

This is the distinction which allows me to suggest that Malabari simultaneously inhabited the categories ‘loyalist’ and critic/nationalist, without turning either into an anomaly. He can, genuinely, complain about the workings of either Government without problematizing the greater principle which informs their existence—the ‘mission’ underscoring their presence in a subject colony. The moral dimension of such an enfeebled state is that the Government merely temporises in the larger matters of policy, because it knows its place in the wider scheme of things.

Q. Malabari goes so far as to claim he is the Hindu widow, to quote from your book: “Verily, I am the destitute and deserted Hindu widow while pleading for her.” What accounts for his extraordinarily empathetic stance towards women, one which comes up repeatedly in his writing and advocacy? Could you discuss Malabari’s celebrated Notes on infant marriage and enforced widowhood and their connection to the Age of Consent legislation? What did Malabari see as constituting a woman’s ‘consent’? Was ‘consent’ informed by physical capability, or was there an element of active agency? As Tanika Sarkar points out, the Phulmoni episode temporarily silenced the revivalists. What was the reaction to Malabari’s role after the passage of Age of Consent Act from the revivalists? Did women make use of the change in the law and did Malabari remark upon its use by them?

I hesitate to offer up a simple ‘origin story’ for Malabari’s extraordinary—startling then as it remains unusual now—ability to empathise with women (and ryots, and the caste-oppressed/dispossessed of any hue). It would be simplistic to trace it back solely to incidents from his childhood, as his early biographers Karkaria and Gidumal sometimes do, although these events had to undoubtedly have contributed to the formation of his empathetic subjectivity. Or put it down (as Karkaria does) most to his brush with benevolent missionaries, like Rev. John Wilson, upon whose death Malabari composed Wilson Virah (1878). Or to locate it in the sheer catholicity one would have had to bring to learning and creating in general, being a late-19th-century man of letters, with views about everything (and none of the postmodern temerity which comes with our healthy distrust of metanarratives). It is likely an admixture of all of this and more; of inheriting the story of his young mother being escorted to the city gates of Surat by a gang of dacoits who were nicer to her (and young Malabari himself) than either of her husbands were; of having the reputation of being a boozy miscreant at age 12, before the death of his mother left him a wizened soul; of taking—and failing, repeatedly—the matriculation examination, and realizing he was not going to be a university man; of traveling the length and breadth of Hindustan that was slowly being forged into a nation in his own lifetime and seeing the myriad ways in which people live and love and fight and tear ourselves apart.

Malabari’s Notes on Infant Marriage and Enforced Widowhood (1884) are the foundational documents for his activism around the passage of the Age of Consent bill (1891). As I’ve mentioned earlier, this bill saw the age of consent for Indian women raised from 10 to 12. This was a difference that felt imperative after the tragic death of Phulmonee Dassee (1890), an eleven-year-old Bengali girl who was brutally raped by her thirty-five-year-old husband Hari Mohan Maitee in 1889, because colonial law considered sex with wives only under ten as rape, leading to Maitee being acquitted of rape, but being found guilty of causing death inadvertently, by a ‘rash’ and negligent act. Satisfied with Government’s willingness to do “everything in their power, on proper representation” once the Notes had been widely disseminated and discussed, Malabari endeavored to initiate a public discussion around them, including obtaining, upon the advice of Auckland Colvin (then Finance Member) a series of “test decisions” from the law courts (Malabari 1887: 17) to determine the limits of the existing laws, and learn if/what legislation would best serve to enhance women’s position in India.

In writings in and around the Notes, Malabari describes child and infant marriage as “matrimonial slavery”, and holds that it can only lead to impoverishment of the body and intellect in addition to the economic problem—and this is why he says he proposes government intervention by way of legislation which would, say, disallow a candidate from sitting for university examinations or applying for jobs to government departments, if it were found he had been contracted into child marriage—of exacerbating poverty. On enforced widowhood, he says that since the Widow Remarriage Act of 1856 was ‘ineffectual’ in bringing about the desired social change, Malabari proposed that Government “may be pleased to make annual grants for a few years to a Widow Marriage Fund in aid of the movement” and that “special educational facilities be provided for widows, to enable them to qualify themselves as school mistresses, midwives, medical practitioners, and so on”(Malabari 1887: 9). Through all this though, not only is there no actual engagement with consent as a category we understand today, but also a genuine inability to deal with the possibility of female desire or sexuality: that’s definitely something of a blind spot as far as the Notes or in Malabari’s writings in general.

Q. Could you discuss five works your book is in conversation with or building upon?

I’d have to start with his biographies, which I’ll count as one category: Dayaram Gidumal, Behramji M. Malabari: A Biographical Sketch (1888) and Rustomji P. Karkaria, India, Forty Years of Progress and Reform: Being a Sketch of the Life and Times of Behramji M. Malabari (1896). I think my work draws from both, but builds upon them substantially, because this is the first time that Malabari’s journalism has been set into conversation with his ethnographies of Gujarat or England, and both, have been brought to bear on his poetry or pamphleteering. I’d like to think this book also speaks to Sudhir Chandra’s The Oppressive Present: Literature and Social Consciousness in Colonial India (1992) and perhaps even more to Chandra’s Enslaved Daughters: Colonialism, Law and Women’s Rights (1998), which is an exploration of the minutiae of the Rukhmabai case, and what it tells us about the yawning chasm between law and justice. Lastly, I’d like thinking that this text is in conversation with Tridip Suhrud’s Writing Life: Three Gujarati Thinkers (2009), in that it is from him that I learnt to ask questions of a text that belong to its discursive universe and not mine. I think our texts have this in common: we read lives against the societies and times that allow for them, but are also shaped by them, and it is this duality of process both texts attempt to grapple with.

Q. Did the book arise from a PhD dissertation? Could you tell us more about the transition from the PhD to the book? What was the process like?

It did, yes. I was convinced I had the PhD dissertation process all wrong, because unlike most of my peers, I found I enjoyed the writing of the thesis immensely. I actually looked forward to getting to my office and working away at whatever section I knew the day entailed thinking through. Who knew this could be such fun? I put it down to having the most ridiculously wonderful thesis committee possible: they filled our time together with joy and laughter and encouragement, which made everything seem…doable.

The transition from thesis to book was also a surprisingly simple one to navigate, which I put down to having incredibly astute and empathetic reviewers and editors. They asked me to use full-stops more wholesomely because my sentences tend to sometimes linger across paragraphs (and once, the length of a page): I did. They also asked me to flesh out some of the back-stories—particularly with regard to the internal Parsi reform movement of the mid-19th century—which allows for a fuller understanding not just of Malabari, but the incredibly exciting and tumultuous period his life and lifework play themselves out against more generally, and I think the book is far more accessible for it.

Uttara Shahani is a historian and lawyer. Her PhD thesis was on Sindh and the partition of India, c.1927-1952. Uttara works on South Asia, citizenship, partitions, refugees, diasporas, Sindh and Sindhis. She is currently ESRC postdoctoral fellow at the Faculty of History, University of Cambridge.