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September 2009: James Belich

James Belich
Professor of History, Victoria University of Wellington

1. Where, when, and why did you become interested in British history?

I came to British and American history by a rather roundabout route. My early work was on the myths and realities of a particular indigenous resistance to British imperialism – the ‘Maori Wars’. I followed that with books on the general history of a particular settler society – New Zealand. But it became increasingly clear to me that these were parts of much wider phenomena: the expansion of Europe, and especially of English-speakers. In this new book, I try to explain the gargantuan growth of the English-speakers in the 19th century without resort to notions of cultural or institutional superiority – let alone racial – superiority.

2. Who most influenced your academic development?

I was lucky enough to have contact with some very fine historians. As a research student, I was influenced by Peter Munz and Colin Davis, who at that time were working in New Zealand, and then by David Fieldhouse and Ronald Robinson at Oxford. John Pocock and Keith Sinclair gave me crucial encouragement in my early career.

3. If you hadn’t become a historian what career path would you have chosen?

I would probably have been a writer of some other kind.

4. Of your academic projects, which one has proven to be most fulfilling?

This last book, Replenishing the Earth, has been an immense challenge, dealing as it does with the history of a dozen countries – not just the USA, Britain, and its former dominions but also other settler societies such as Siberia and Argentina. The book also offers two quite wide-ranging theories: one about why the English-speakers grew so fast, and one about how. The book was quite a mountain to climb, and making it has been very fulfilling.

5. Where do you see the field of British history heading in the next few years?

I think that the history of the British Isles has to come to terms with the history of the British Diaspora. For one thing, you cannot tell the story of the British and Irish peoples without their 25 million emigrants. For another, many people outside the Isles once defined themselves as ‘British’. We do not have to like Britain’s history of global conquest and settlement, but we do have to understand it.

6. What advice do you have for graduate students and beginning academics about finding a topic of interest and publishing on it?

Trainee historians have to recognize that they are a precious resource. If you are going to spend a large chunk of your life studying a topic, you should be sure that it is worthwhile, as well as intriguing, novel, and practicable. Is it likely to cast fresh light on important historical issues?

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