The Weight of the Past in Franco-British Relations

Elizabeth Thompson’s painting “The 28th Regiment at Quatre Bras” depicts the North Gloucestershire Regiment battling French cavalry two days before the 1815 Battle of Waterloo. Rendered in 1875 it captures the power of Waterloo in British political and historical imagination.

How does one measure the influence that history has on contemporary affairs and issues? Is it possible to fashion some kind of litmus test, through which we can assess the impact that perceptions of the past have had on the conceptualisation of national and transnational policies? It is questions like these that the AHRC research project ‘The Weight of the Past in Franco-British Relations’ will explore over the next three years. Led by Professor Peter Jackson (University of Glasgow) alongside co-investigators Dr Rachel Utley (University of Leeds) and Dr Rogelia Pastor-Castro (Strathclyde University) and post-doctoral research assistant Dr Rachel Chin (University of Glasgow), this project will assess the role that representations of the past have played in Franco-British relations since 1815. More specifically, it will seek to understand how history, or at least subjective constructions of history, has shaped policy debates in general and prospects for Franco-British co-operation in particular. Continue reading “The Weight of the Past in Franco-British Relations”

Selective Memory: The Brexit Campaign and Historical Nostalgia

Printed the day after France requested armistice terms from Germany, a celebration of Britain's 'lonely' wartime defiance.  Evening Standard (18 June 1940).
Printed the day after France requested armistice terms from Germany, a celebration of Britain’s ‘lonely’ wartime defiance. Evening Standard (18 June 1940).

Rachel Chin
University of Exeter
Follow on Twitter @chinra4

Billionaire stockbroker Peter Hargreaves recently claimed that leaving the EU could be likened to the British evacuation from Dunkirk in late May 1940. This withdrawal signalled the British retreat from the continent and immediately preceded the French capitulation to German forces two weeks later. Hargreaves declared, “We will get out there and we will become incredibly successful because we will be insecure again.”[1]

As a scholar of rhetoric and the Second World War, I have become particularly attuned to how conflict is used and abused by politicians as a means to convince the British public of the value of a particular issue. Most recently, Tory politicians and campaigners like Hargreaves have mobilised Britain’s role in the Second World War as a justification to vote either for or against staying in the European Union (EU). This type of rhetoric is, at its core, emotive and nostalgic. It’s also deeply troubling because such oversimplified ideas of national identity and wartime patriotism are circumventing any chance of having a meaningful discussion about how Brexit would or would not change life on this island nation. It also ignores the fact that the Second World War was a global conflict, however much that might challenge ingrained nationalistic nostalgia. Continue reading “Selective Memory: The Brexit Campaign and Historical Nostalgia”

Empires in Perspective: Baudin, Napoleon and the Exploration of Australia


Rachel Chin 
History Department, University of Exeter

Nicole Starbuck. Baudin, Napoleon and the Exploration of Australia. London: Pickering & Chatto, 2013. 208 pp. £60 (hardback), ISBN 978 1 84893 210 4; £24 (eBook), ISBN 978 1 84893 210 4.

Baudin_FrontAs the blade of the guillotine slowed in the aftermath of the Terror, Napoleon took up the reigns as First Consul and French explorer Nicolas Baudin proposed an ambitious voyage to “interest the whole of Europe” [12]. It is also where Nicole Starbuck begins Baudin, Napoleon and the Exploration of Australia (2013). A commoner by birth, Baudin made his name as a member of the French merchant marine and French East India Company, eventually captaining a scientific voyage to the Caribbean. However, his 1802 Australian voyage was unique in its narrow scope of exploration, and its unprecedented twenty-two participating naturalists and scientists. This voyage was the first to emphasize specialized knowledge acquisition and scientific detail, a shift from earlier Enlightenment explorations, when natural history was seen as “a sweeping and largely philosophical study of the natural environment…implicated in questions about rationality” [15]. Continue reading “Empires in Perspective: Baudin, Napoleon and the Exploration of Australia”