1. Where, when, and why did you become interested in British history?
JH: It is a long story. I began my graduate work at the University of Guelph, Canada, where I completed a MA in comparative international development studies and sociology, with a regional focus on East Africa. The CIDS program, as we called it, was challenging and exciting, but after three years of interdisciplinary studies, I became disenchanted, let us say, with “development” as a set of national and international policy initiatives. I sensed, as many other scholars and practitioners argued at the time, that development theory was at a crossroads; the old theoretical paradigms and models no longer held, yet there were no real alternatives. It seemed to me that what was missing from the discussion was a solid understanding of the broader historical, political, and institutional context in which development as a pervasive set of ideas and practices first emerged. For most critics, it was assumed that development as a global discourse began at the end of the Second World War with the emergence of the United States as the dominant world power. My sense of history told me that the origins and problems went much deeper and that perhaps the way out of the so-called impasse in development studies and theory was to examine those origins more carefully and thoughtfully.
I decided to apply to do my PhD in history, and to pursue this quest for historical perspective further. This led me to study at Queen’s University in Kingston under Dr. Robert Shenton, who together with the late Dr. Michael Cowen, was writing a book on the history of development doctrines in Europe in the 19th century and subsequently in other regions of the world from Australia and Canada to Kenya. Having already studied something of the history of British colonial rule in East Africa, it seemed logical to pursue my interest in examining development from a historical perspective through the wider context of Britain and the British Empire in the 19th and 20th centuries. It was in this way that I became interested in British history, taking fields in British culture and society in the 19th and early 20th centuries; British imperialism, with a focus on India and Africa; and Irish history in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
I should also say that I have acquired a greater appreciation and understanding of the history of England, and more recently Scotland, through my teaching. Both in my present post here at West Virginia University, and at my previous institution, I have been responsible for teaching courses on the entire scope of British history since the 17th century. Since our graduate program is heavily oriented toward American history, you find there are a lot of students doing American history who want to know something about Britain and Ireland, especially in the early modern period. I find the 17th and 18th century especially interesting to teach. I get a kick out of teaching students the American Revolution from the British perspective for example, and though I am by no means an expert, I think the new focus on the Atlantic world is enriching and stimulating.
2. Who most influenced your academic development?
JH: I would have to say my PhD adviser, Dr. Robert Shenton. Without a doubt, as I have said in the acknowledgements to my book, it was Dr. Shenton who really made me see (in his sometimes enigmatic and cryptic way!) that development has had a long history; a history that few of us fully understand. I still believe that, although I must say there is a growing corpus of exciting new work now being done on the subject including Diana Davis, Resurrecting the Granary of Rome and Amy Staples, The Birth of Development. Scholars of U.S. diplomatic history such as Michael Latham, Nick Cullather and Nils Gilman are also doing fascinating work on the history of modernization.
3. If you hadn’t become a historian what career path would you have chosen?
JH: Honestly, probably a house painter! After I graduated from high school, a couple of my close friends and I decided to start a painting company together. With the help of a government student venture loan and a beat up old telephone repair van, we kept the company running off and on throughout our college years. It kept us ridiculously busy from May to September and beyond every year, and at one point, we even had several crews working for us and contemplated running the business full time. In the end, I stayed in school and one thing led to another and I found myself doing a PhD instead. I continued to paint houses though, even in grad school, and when I graduated I found myself digging up the old paintbrush and drop sheets once again, as an interim solution to paying the bills while I searched for a full-time academic position. I still love to paint, believe it or not, although now I limit myself to working on my own house rather than other peoples.
4. What project are you currently working on?
JH: I am currently working on two projects. The first is really a sequel to Triumph. When I was researching the book, I spent a lot of time going through the manuscripts and personal papers of colonial officials housed at Rhodes House in Oxford as part of the Colonial Records/Oxford Development Records Project. As I did, I noticed that many colonial officers who were hired after the Second World War, say between 1945 and 1955 or so, mentioned that they ended up going on to work for various international organizations like the UN or the World Bank, or else for the ODM/ODA and other British donor agencies and consultancy firms after they retired from HMOCS. I got the idea of charting their subsequent careers as a way of exploring the transition from late colonialism to the early post-colonial era. I call this my Post-Colonial Careers Project. So far I have made contact with nearly 100 former colonial officials, mostly technical officers from agriculture, forestry and other related fields, who have agreed to participate in the project. Thus far, I have managed to carry out oral history interviews with about 30 of them, and to begin archival research this summer at the Library of Congress and the World Bank Group Archives in Washington, D.C.
The other thing I am involved with is a multi-disciplinary team project looking at the relationship between livelihood and land use, both historically and today, in Malawi (the former British colonial protectorate of Nyasaland). The team consists of two geographers, an agricultural economist, and a historian (myself). We were recently awarded a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to carry out the research over the next two years. NSF has also provided additional funding in order for us to bring senior undergraduate or early graduate students along to participate in the fieldwork, which is scheduled to take place in the summer of 2008. Ii is our plan to develop this research into an even larger, multi-country study, looking at several former British colonies in sub-Saharan and Southern Africa.
5. What projects do you see yourself working on in the near future?
JH: Well, these two projects will keep me busy for quite some time! But somewhere down the road, I would like to return to some research I began while I was still a graduate student at Queen’s. I wrote a couple of papers on Henry Sumner Maine and his ideas about the village community and land reform in 19th century India. These papers also looked at debates about land tenure and property both in Ireland and England at the same time. Maine’s comparative historical method allowed him to draw some important analogies between England and India that came to be regarded as axioms of Victorian progress (and later, “modernization” theory). There were others too, like Sir George Campbell, who were comparing land tenure in India and Ireland around the same time. I would like one day to return to the question of land and land reform, not just in India and Ireland, but perhaps a whole history of the “land question” in Britain and the empire and its legacies, from the enclosure movement to
6. Of your academic projects, which one has proven to be most fulfilling?
JH: Well, I would have to say, they have all been rewarding in different ways. I feel very privileged to be doing what I am doing. My interdisciplinary background (history, sociology, development studies) has allowed me to keep a foot in two camps. I remain very interested in current environmental and development studies debates, as my work with the Malawi Team attests. I think it is important for scholars to break down academic barriers and compartments and to engage the ideas and perspectives of their colleagues in other disciplines. I have for example been collaborating closely with a geographer of South Africa, Dr. Brent McCusker, looking at the history and legacy of Betterment planning and forced removals in what is today the Central Limpopo Province. This partnership has been very rewarding, helping me to see the problem not
only in historical terms, but spatially. I feel strongly that many contemporary environmental and development policy debates would gain greatly from a deeper historical and contextual understanding both of the problems they seek solutions for, and of the practices that often follow.
On the other hand, I can’t imagine not being a historian. One of my favorite experiences recently has been driving all over England and Wales conducting oral history interviews for my post-colonial careers project. Almost all of the respondents are now in their seventies and eighties, and in a few short years, many of them will pass away. In a way, they are the last generation of colonial civil service officers, whose memories of the last years of the British Empire are invaluable. How very fortunate I am
that they have been so willing to share their experiences and stories with me! I plan to deposit the transcripts and related materials at Rhodes House in due time.
7. Where do you see the field of British history heading in the next few years?
JH: I would hope that the research agenda that has developed over the last ten or fifteen years of integrating the history of Britain with the wider history of its empire will continue to broaden and expand. I think that work such as Richard Drayton’s Nature’s Government or Andrew Thompson’s The Empire Strikes Back? are excellent examples of the kind of scholarship that might be pursued further. I would also like to see greater dialogue between historians and other disciplinary approaches. It seems
to me that this is especially appropriate for historians of empire. Work such as David Lambert and Alan Lester’s Colonial Lives across the British Empire, which uses a networked or webbed conception of imperial space to examine the interconnections between colonial and metropolitan places, projects and people, are very worthwhile and might be extended beyond the 19th century to earlier or later time periods. Finally, I hope to see more research done on the legacies of the British Empire, both for British identity and society itself, and for the many countries that were once former colonial territories. Though scholars such as Stuart Ward have begun to explore the history of the decolonization of British culture and identity, much remains to be done.
8. What advice do you have for graduate students and beginning academics about finding a topic of interest and publishing on it?
JH: I remember when I first started the PhD program at Queen’s and I met for one of the first times with my supervisor, Robert Shenton. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to focus on, or even what kind of historian I wanted to be. I wasn’t sure if I should style myself more as an Africanist or British imperial historian. You have to keep in mind that this was just before the “imperial turn” in British history, and so to say you were a British imperial historian was to conjure up images of dusty old men in tweed, smoking pipes! At any rate, Shenton, told me to go with what I was most passionate about and that the rest would take care of itself. I wasn’t sure if the rest would take care of itself, but I decided to follow his advice anyways and concentrate my fields on Britain and British colonial history. Stemming from my days as a Master’s student in sociology and anthropology, I had always been interested in the relationship between anthropology and colonialism. Shenton suggested that I broaden the topic a bit to look at, as he called it, the rise of the colonial expert, and he mentioned that the Colonial Office had set up a whole slew of advisory committees in the 20th century to help formulate policy; the records were there just waiting for someone like myself to make use of them. That was the beginning of my book, Triumph of the Expert, and it was also the beginning of my career as a historian of the British Empire. Luckily for me, I finished my doctorate just as the job market for historians with an expertise in empire was opening up. So in the end Shenton was right, and this is what I tell my own graduate students who come to me wondering which direction they should be heading in.
As for publishing, I would say it is very important for graduate students and junior academics to attend scholarly conferences, like the upcoming British Scholar Conference or the AHA, and to go to the book fairs and meet the publishers and editors. Find out what sort of themes and work they are promoting, and if possible, have your supervisor or a more senior colleague you know introduce you and your work to them!