Teasing out a Tapestry: Or how studying the Early Empire changed my historical perspective for life

As historians and history teachers we love a well placed analogy. For many of us the planning of a secondary curriculum will forever be planting a garden. As our curriculum evolves we will forever be pottering. Yet, alongside the weeding and planting is the process of learning history that our students are going through, which in my mind (forever the early modernist) is the weaving of a tapestry.

From childhood we are continuously gathering threads of substantive knowledge. If we have the privilege visits to museums and galleries might add extra colour and shade to stories we encounter formally in the classroom. For those lucky enough to take their historical studies through A-Level and beyond enough links and overlap between topics will be built to allow for the weaving of more coherent pictures. It might be a history of a country, an era or the beginning of an understanding of history at a certain moment across a geographical span. For some, the threads might always remain a disconnected jumble.

The most powerful moment of tapestry building for me came by complete accident. In fact, if I had had my way it would never have happened.

I spent my first year of undergraduate history choosing courses in a way that reflected the way I had learnt at school – a random topic on the Tudors here, a history of the anti-Semitism going back to the ancient period there, Nationalism in twentieth century Europe with a dose of the history of football and a random grab at Henry V and Chivalry on top for good measure. The curriculum I was creating for myself was a supermarket sweep of disparate topics. Piles of patterns were building in corners but I was building no really unified pictures and the courses were largely focused on either England or Europe or had a limited scope.

Then the magic happened, literally. I stumbled on a course upon the witch-hunts and found it fascinating.

I spent second year chasing early modern social history and the stories of riotous women, rebellions, deviants and criminals across Europe and the Atlantic. My picture of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was expanding. Still though that high-political Tudor obsession fuelled by visits to Hampton Court and a childhood rifling through Pitkin guides to the Six Wives and the Tower of London (weirdo) meant I had a hankering to spend third year in the Henrician Court that just wouldn’t quit. Luckily for me, the third year Tudor specialist course at my university was at the time led by Professor Suzannah Lipscomb. Reader – it got booked up fast. That door to a year with Henry and Wolsey shutting changed my historical perspective forever.

I ended up instead on a course entitled ‘The English in the Americas: c.1580 – c.1692’. I got to spend a year investigating how the Natives went from being a pliable group ripe for conversion to peoples to be subjected; how figures like Pocahontas and free Africans in Virginia and Massachusetts came to live between cultures. I immersed myself in how ideas of race, identity, gender were played out, constructed and consolidated in a new Atlantic context through the richness of the literature and source material of the period.

I can still remember the ground shifting beneath my metaphorical historical feet as topics I had studied previously – an A-Level coursework on Michael Collins and Irish Nationalism, my first year witch-hunts module which of course included Salem, the Civil War, Puritanism and the Slave Trade suddenly became rooted in a shared global context. Studies of Othello at A-level, family ties to Barbados, growing up in an area with a rich Caribbean heritage, visits to my Grandparents in Sir Francis Drake’s corner of Devon, watching ‘Pocahontas’ as a child, Thanksgiving episodes of American TV shows and my own identity suddenly not only developed a deeper meaning but were also problematised.

Knowledge is power and in learning about the early Empire and colonisation my historical perspective and sense of self was powered up from 2D to 4D. My knowledge went from messy jumbles to (this one is for all the Mantel fans out there) Cromwell’s ‘Queen of Sheba’.

I have been fascinated with anything to do with the early colonies, migration or identity in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries ever since. Yet in 2012 – 2013 when I started to think about becoming a history teacher I kicked myself. Why had I bothered with such an off-kilter specialism? How could a year spent reading accounts of cross-cultural encounters with the Native peoples of Virginia or Massachusetts ever come in handy in the secondary context? How was knowing the ins and outs of the codifications of the Slave Codes or the construction of race and identity in the early modern world ever going to help students pass their GCSEs?

Luckily 2016 came. The AQA Migration topic arrived and since then the work of the ERC Tide Project, Runnymede Trust, Olusoga and Kaufmann, the push to diversify and decolonise the curriculum has given me lots of hope.

We are also seeing a real shift in the historiography of the early Empire – the 1619 Project in 2019 was created to highlight America’s long history of black presence and to ensure awareness that the quincentenary of the setting up of the Virginia Assembly also coincided with the arrival of the first enslaved Africans to Virginia as a result of privateering.

This year sees too the quincentenary of the arrival of the Pilgrims to the New World allowing for analyses of how that story has been mythologised and used to justify WASP superiority whilst hiding the stories of the Wampanoag and other peoples such as the Pequot. It seems like a ripe time to be expanding our teaching of the Tudor and Stuart worlds.

Obviously. Obvi-ou-sly though I am biased. I spent my weekends pre-Covid in the British Library prepping for a Masters in the area looking at black presence and privateering I am taking up in 2021. I have already written a Teaching History article on how I have used the work of Miranda Kaufmann, David Olusoga and Jerry Brotton and my own knowledge from university to develop an enquiry into the expansion of the Tudor and Stuart world.

Obviously too, anyone on a journey to expertise in history will build up their own sophisticated tapestries in their own area. Yet I think approaching migration/colonisation and the Atlantic world in the c16th and c17th is a powerful way of building links across ‘traditional topics’ featured in our curriculum and providing us an opportunity to root the familiar stories of the Tudor and the Stuarts in a global context that might just shift our students thinking as to what history is and can be.

I think we should all get this area into our KS3s because it is ripe for:

  1. Highlighting the power of cross-cultural encounters – Pocahontas, John Blanke, Diego, the Moroccan delegation all highlight the complexity of identity in the early modern period. How social and racial difference was constructed and how people in the early modern past like today existed in the space between cultures.
  2. Showing a historiography that is literally shifting before our eyes Pocahontas’ story was heavily mythologised to create a ‘Southern’ origin story during the Civil War. English historians are trying to reclaim the early colonists as English and not proto-Americans. Archeological discoveries such as ‘Jane‘ at Jamestown have literally changed our understanding of the story of early America within the past seven years.
  3. Moving the Puritans onto the Global Stage – Far from just annoying Elizabeth I and being the cronies of Cromwell the Puritan migration to America is central to the creation myth of America and later ideas of American exceptionalism.
  4. Context is King – In studying the early modern Atlantic world we can give a grounding to courses on the Slave Trade, studies of modern Ireland (Elizabethan and Jacobean colonisation attempts their being seen as the blueprint for later actions against the Native Americans), the later Americans and most importantly I think for studies of the American West and Civil Rights courses that begin with the era of Manifest Destiny and Wounded Knee.
  5. The Characters are Incredible – Thomas Morton the good-time guy who established a free-loving and drinking alternative to Boston and ended up being chased out of town, Pocahontas, her father Powahatan and uncle Opechancanough in Virginia, Anne Hutchinson, Mary Dyer and other women who fell upon the bad sides of the elders of Boston.  The Regicides who fled England at the accession of Charles II and were hunted through New England.

Over the coming weeks I’m going to share how I teach the early Empire and America as well as sharing the stories of my favourite figures and cross-cultural encounters.