This week we hand the reigns over to PhD student Rob McGregor who has been conducting research on Henry John Temple, third Viscount Palmerston and his relationship with British anti-slavery. We could have titled this blog post “A beginner’s guide to historical research” as Rob provides very clear and sound advice for masters and PhD students who wish to use original archival material in their essays.Since the nineteenth-century, Britain has been depicted as an ‘anti-slavery nation,’ guiding the rest of the world to follow its lead in abolishing the Atlantic slave trade as well as the institution of slavery. At the helm of the Foreign Office and later as Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, one of Britain’s least known but arguably most important statesmen, led the nation’s crusade against the slave trade. By the time of his death in office in 1865, he had virtually achieved this mission. However, although he has been remembered as many things, neither scholars nor the public have ever regarded Palmerston as a warm and sincere abolitionist. My PhD therefore looks into Palmerston’s relationship with British anti-slavery, considering his unique position, policy and conviction, as well as his motivations for wanting to end the slave trade. Over the last three years, I have had the opportunity to read a wide range of sources related to the slave trade, but without doubt the most exciting and useful sources underpinning my work have been Palmerston’s private letters and semi-official correspondence, held in the Broadlands archive of Southampton University’s Special Collections.
This body of documents provides a unique glimpse of Palmerston’s own inner thoughts and views. What did he really think about anti-slavery? Were his public statements a true reflection of his private thoughts? Only by analysing his private letters, it seems to me, can these vital questions be answered.It can be daunting when first faced with a lengthy catalogue of primary material to explore. When I began my PhD in 2015, I was lucky enough to be conversant with the practice of searching for materials already, since I had used the archive to research my undergraduate dissertation, also on ‘Palmerston and the slave trade.’ Back then, I had been drawn to a sub-division of the archive entitled ‘Papers on the slave trade.’ It looked perfect, containing 37 items all relating to Palmerston’s anti-slavery endeavours. I looked through these papers closely and, once I had got used to reading Palmerston’s hand-writing – which I gratefully learned was excellent compared to some of his colleagues – I found lots of interesting things, like how the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society had presented an address to him in 1842 thanking him for his ‘generous zeal,’ or a note he wrote to himself about how his ‘blood boiled with indignation’ and his heart ‘burned with shame’ at the ‘miseries of the African.’ But when I started my PhD, I realised I was only scratching the surface.
As a Postgraduate, I learned from my supervisor, Professor David Brown, that the largest sub-division of the archive was his General Correspondence, containing around three-quarters of his letters. In total there are around 40,000 items in the Palmerston Papers, so finding things related to anti-slavery felt like looking for a needle in a haystack. Fortunately, navigating this abundance of materials was not as challenging or impossible as I’d feared.I soon learnt that since this particular collection is arranged alphabetically by correspondent, the best way to find sources relating to my subject was to think creatively about who Palmerston would be writing to about it, and crucially, when. To begin with then, I searched the archive’s online catalogue for letters Palmerston had written to known abolitionists, members of anti-slavery societies, and above all his Whig colleagues.
To read through Palmerston’s letters to all of these people, however, would have taken years. There are over 1000 letters between Palmerston and Russell alone! I therefore had to limit my searches to key dates when I suspected anti-slavery would be on the political agenda; when important anti-slavery conferences were taking place or anti-slavery treaties signed, when Palmerston was threatening a pro-slavery country or when naval captains were causing furore at home and abroad by their violent actions on the West African coast.This process served me well. Although I never found one particular letter which answered all of my questions, over time, after reading hundreds of letters in which Palmerston touched on British anti-slavery, a picture was built up which informed the direction and argument of my resulting thesis. Palmerston, it now seems to me, felt a sincere revulsion against the slave trade and wanted to end it not just because it was a long-running British aim or because it was in the nation’s imperial and economic interests, but because he felt genuine humanitarian impulses to end what he considered humanity’s greatest crime.
Thus, for me, using the Broadlands Archive was a creative process, one that required me to think imaginatively and intelligently about how to locate the best sources to help answer my particular research questions. And, due to the unique nature of the sources, it has been both an incredibly exciting and essential part of my PhD research.