Reflecting on Imtiaz Habib’s Black Lives in the English Archives: Introduction

Rebecca Adusei and Jamie Gemmell

Imtiaz Habib’s Black Lives in the English Archives, 1500-1677: Imprints of the Invisible (Routledge, 2008) is one text within the relatively small, but longstanding, field of early modern Black British History. Neither a cultural history of early modern racialisation nor a social history of Black Britons, the text is a kind of analytical cataloguing that seeks to locate a “missing subject” through the literal construction of an archive and an accompanying commentary. It manages to be both empirically rigorous – Habib located 448 “Black citations” – and theoretically rich. It provides a roadmap and a grammar for the social historian to think carefully about early modern England’s Black inhabitants and the archives that render those lives (il)legible.

Habib’s herculean effort in 2008 highlighted, and continues to highlight, the importance of adopting an interdisciplinary approach when looking at the lives of people of colour in early modern Britain. In its robust, rigorous, and in-depth analysis, Black Lives laid a solid foundation which Early Modern Studies continues to build on. Habib’s bridging of the gap between the historical and literary disciplines has enabled Early Modern Studies to create a holistic idea of what it was like to be a person of colour in the early modern period and to track the origins of racism.

Despite its weighty contributions, the text remains relatively neglected by social historians and, in some cases, actively dismissed. Our Symposium seeks to reflect on Habib’s Black Lives and firmly establish its importance to Early Modern Studies, particularly social history. This is especially important given the emergence of the “archive” as a heuristic within Black Feminist literature, Atlantic History, and Slavery Studies. While scholars have critically interrogated the colonial archives, less attention has been paid to the archives of the imperial metropole. Habib’s work is, therefore, an ideal way to integrate these archives and think relationally across different methodologies. We hope the reflections published here will demonstrate both the importance of Habib’s work and the vitality of scholarship thinking about early modern Britain’s Black inhabitants.

Over the next few weeks, our contributors will reflect on Habib’s text and the history of Black lives in Britain between 1500 and 1800. Next week, Graham Moore’s post explores the Berkshire Record Office, looking at the Black Presence in rural early modern England. Nikki Clarke uses Habib to think about the life of Amantacha, an indigenous American who spent time in Europe during the 1620s. In week three, Susannah Lyon-Whaley turns to the Restoration court and Black individuals within the household of Queen Catherine of Braganza. Jacqui Stanford offers a reflection on the work required to find and sit with early modern Black lives, drawing on the writings of Habib and Kim Hall. In week four, Annabelle Gilmore grounds her post in the historical discipline, highlighting the limitations of working with provincial records when locating the Black presence in the eighteenth century. Hannah Crawforth explores the relationship between Habib’s Black Lives and Caroline Randall Williams’ Lucy Negro Redux, highlighting how Habib’s findings have influenced works outside of Early Modern Studies. In week five, Amber Burbidge brings Habib into direct conversation with Black Feminist scholarship on the archive, thinking carefully about questions of race and gender. Montaz Marché pulls Habib’s analysis into the eighteenth century, working through some of the ways he, and Black Feminist scholars, have raised questions for her own research. In our final week, Jamie Gemmell builds on Habib’s use of the parish register by working through records from the LMA’s Switching the Lens project. Rebecca Adusei explores the significance of taking an interdisciplinary approach, and the importance in relation to looking at the Black, female presence in early modern literature and drama.

On 19 May (11:15-15:00), we will be launching our blog series at the London Metropolitan Archives. We will begin with a set of presentations from some of our contributors and Q&A. This will be followed by a lunch and tours around the London Metropolitan Archive’s “Unforgotten Lives” exhibition. This exhibition presents the stories of Londoners of African, Caribbean, Asian and Indigenous heritage who lived and worked in the city between 1560 and 1860 and are recorded in London’s archives. The event is free and open to all. Please sign up via our Eventbrite, available here.

Out of the Reflecting on Imtiaz Habib’s Black Lives in the English Archives Online Symposium we will be formally creating The Imtiaz Habib Network. With the formation of this network, we hope to build on the foundation that Habib laid in his Black Lives. Prioritising anti-racist practices, the network will create a safe space for scholars to discuss their work and findings. The primary incentive of the network is to foster an encouraging and welcoming environment and create meaningful conversations that will aid premodern critical race studies and histories of early modern Black life. For more information, please reach out via our website’s contact form.

From the start this work has been intensely collaborative. We wish to thank everybody who contributed to our online reading sessions. Each discussion was thoughtful and provided a space to fully grapple with the breadth and rigour of Habib’s text. Our contributors sit at the core of this work and we wish to thank them for their dedication and their writing. Throughout, their work has challenged us and we have learned so much from their contributions. We hope participation in the Symposium has been equally beneficial for them. For funding the Symposium’s various events, we wish to thank the Royal Historical Society, the Society for Renaissance Studies, and KCL’s Medicine and the Making of Race Project. The Centre for Early Modern Studies at KCL, especially the Centre’s administrator, Jonathan Powell, have been foundational to the Symposium’s logistics. We thank them for their support in navigating various university systems. The London Metropolitan Archives will be kindly hosting our launch. We thank them for their support in realising this event. Finally, we wish to thank the editors of the many-headed monster blog. They have supported the Symposium since its infancy and have generously provided a platform for our work.

Rebecca Adusei is a PhD student at King’s College, London. Her project locates and analyses depictions and characterisations of Sub-Saharan Africans in Early Modern literature and drama. Trained in Literary Studies, Rebecca’s research has become increasingly interdisciplinary. Drawing together Literary Studies and History, she looks at Black individuals in the early modern archives and scrutinises their characterisations in literature.

Jamie Gemmell is a historian of race and power in the early modern Anglo-Atlantic World. He is an AHRC-funded PhD student at King’s College, London. His project traces how London life changed in the wake of England’s development of racialised systems of enslaved labour across the Americas in the late seventeenth century. His project is titled “Reckoning with Race in Early Modern London, 1655-1712”. Jamie is Assistant Editor at the University of Maryland’s Slavery, Law, and Power Project and Project Director of He is former Editor-in-Chief of Retrospect Journal, where he co-edited “Race in Retrospective” with RACE.ED.

Links to all the posts in the series will be added to the event homepage after they are published.

Reflecting on Habib’s Black Lives in the English Archives: An Online Symposium


The many-headed monster is delighted to bring you a series of posts responding to Imtiaz Habib’s Black Lives in the English Archives, 1500-1677: Imprints of the Invisible (Ashgate: 2008, Routledge: 2020). The posts are part of Rebecca Adusei and Jamie Gemmell’s multi-event symposium, which brings together scholars working at the forefront of early modern Black history and premodern race studies to discuss the vital importance and continuing legacy of Habib’s text.

Rebecca and Jamie will introduce the blog series on Thursday 4 May, and we will then publish two posts a week over the following month – links to all the posts will be added to this page as we go, so you can bookmark it now if you want to follow along.

Rebecca and Jamie also invite you to celebrate the publication of the blog series on Friday 19 May, at the London Metropolitan Archives. Things will kick off with presentations by the blog authors and discussion. This will be followed by a lunch and tours around the London Metropolitan Archive’s ‘Unforgotten Lives’ exhibition. This exhibition presents the stories of Londoners of African, Caribbean, Asian and Indigenous heritage who lived and worked in the city between 1560 and 1860 and are recorded in London’s archives. The event is free, but please register to reserve your spot.

The Early Career Researcher Takeover

The #MonsterTakeover showcased the research of our postgraduate and early career researchers as we handed over control to our readers in the first half of 2021. This post handily provides links to all of the posts in case you missed it.

It is early 2021. Large parts of the globe are in lockdown to try to limit the ravages of the covid-19 pandemic. Conferences and Symposia are postponed and there is still a long road to travel back to ‘normal’. What better moment to give you an alternative way to encounter and engage with cutting edge research on the past, in a digestible format that can fit in around online teaching, caring duties, daily exercise and lying on the floor in a darkened room breathing deeply, etc?

Below you will find links to posts written by early career scholars (baggily defined as budding historians who do not have a permanent job), showcasing their research and airing views on academic life. We are closed to new submissions for now, but we’ll probably be back with another issue of the Monster ECR Takeover in the future!

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Historians, PhDs, and Jobs in 2023

Brodie Waddell

Amid yet another year of university strikes in the UK, the Higher Education Statistics Agency has released the latest data on staff and degrees granted. A couple of years ago, I used this data to try to get a sense of the job market for historians, so it seems like a good time to use the new figures to provide an update.

First, let’s take a look at what’s happening in the USA, where they are able to provide a more rigorous view of the job market because the American Historical Association tracks job advertisements and provides an annual report. In previous years, the AHA reports had been published with a Chart of Doom which showed the catastrophic collapse of job openings relative to degrees granted:

Advertised job openings and new history PhDs awarded

Advertised job openings and new history PhDs awarded: AHA Jobs Report 2021.

In their most recent report, from August 2022, they decided not to publish the Chart of Doom and instead have presented the information about job openings over a more short-term timescale, with more details about the types of jobs advertised. This is very useful information, though it does elide the massive drop in jobs that happened just before the chart starts in 2016-17. In the most recent year, 2021-22, they show ‘academic job listings did indeed rebound to levels above those seen immediately before the pandemic. This increase is not, however, a sign of renewed vitality but a partial return to the steady but dismal state of faculty job availability in the late 2010s.’ Continue reading

Reflecting on Black Lives in the English Archives: A call for participants

  • October – December 2022: Online Reading Sessions
  • February 2023: In-person Workshop at King’s College London
  • April – May 2023: Symposium blog posts published on the many-headed monster

The many-headed monster team are happy to bring you advance notice of our forthcoming Online Symposium, which will grow out of a series of events convened by doctoral students Rebecca Adusei and Jamie Gemmell. We invite current or recent postgraduate students to join us in this collaborative reflection on Imtiaz Habib’s Black Lives in the English Archives – read on for the call for participants and details of how to get involved, or visit the Online Symposium website for more.

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Blogging and the Day Job: Tales from the Blarchive

Jonathan Willis

In a series of recent posts marking the tenth anniversary of the many-headed monster, my co-bloggers have reflected on a number of themes. Mark has discussed the transition of the blog from what seemed (at the time at least) to be a series of topical yet ephemeral interventions into something more permanent: a blog archive or ‘blarchive’ if you will. I fear the term probably won’t enter the running for OED word of the year, and if I’m being completely honest it puts me in mind of early 1990s children’s TV presenter Timmy Mallett (if you were a UK child born in the ‘80s you’ll know what I mean, if not, don’t worry about it!). Laura then highlighted a series of posts relating to the recurring theme of the relationship between historical writing and fiction, and Brodie explored how another prominent series of posts reflect the turbulent history of the historical discipline itself in UKHE and beyond over the past decade.

Parochial – geddit??

This post feels a little more ‘parochial’ (good reformation pun, that) in comparison, because looking back at my contributions to the blog has really given me pause to reflect on what blogging has meant to me at different stages of my career over the past ten years. So in some way this is quite a personal – really rather self-indulgent – set of autobiographical musings, but I hope it is also an interesting dive back into older content on the ‘monster, as well as a potentially useful series of thoughts about what the process of blogging can look like at different times and in different contexts.

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Creativity and history: tales from the blarchive

Laura Sangha

This summer we are marking the ten-year anniversary of the many-headed monster blog with a collection of posts that highlight older material in our blog archive (or our ‘blarchive’, as Mark has christened it, to the great and growing pain of the other monster heads).

In my piece I want to pull at a thread that has run through our output over the years, that is, posts that sit on the fence between history and fiction.

Are you a fan of analogies, however laboured? Read on!

Of course, there isn’t really a fence betweenthese two spaces. Or at least, if there is, it was only erected recently, and in fact it’s pretty shoddy work, full of gaps and holes, plus one part of it blew down in a winter storm a few years back, while another is so deeply lost in the undergrowth it’s no longer effective, or even particularly visible. But anyway, let’s not get lost in the encroaching greenery trying to pinpoint the boundary, but rather, let’s consider the fruitful relationship between history and fiction by revisiting some of our related content.

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the many-headed monster is 10: looking back

When Brodie and Mark quietly announced the birth of the many-headed monster to the world in July 2012, little did they know how big their baby would grow or just how many readers and contributors the behemoth would ensnare. But it’s been quite a ride.

four photos of the monster heads when they were young
monster heads when they were young

It’s possibly obvious to our readers, but we have never had a strict editorial line, preferring the blog to develop organically and to lead us in whatever direction seems promising. We share a consensus that we want to reach broader audiences than journal articles and academic monographs can, and that the types of history that we discuss, the format, and particularly the tone of our writing is intended to be accessible and engaging for non-specialists, but beyond that, there aren’t really any rules. Indeed, until we four co-authors met late in 2021 to discuss how to mark our ten year anniversary we’d never had an editorial meeting, rather we very satisfactorily conducted matters via email, or a scatter of shared google docs for when we were feeling fancy.

This informal approach is perhaps one of our great strengths. For one thing, it keeps editorial and administrative duties to the barest minimum. Just as importantly, it has allowed us to develop ways of publishing content online that retains the quick blog post format, but which expand and adapt it for different purposes. At its simplest, this might mean breaking a longer post into more easily digestible chunks and posting each chunk individually across a week or a fortnight, as Mark did with his posts on the application of theory to the history of food and drink.

More distinctively, our ‘Monster Mini-Series’ quickly became a feature of our output. These are both finite and current/long-running collections of posts focused around a particular theme or topic. Laura’s posts on the history of the Tudor Southwest is an example of the former, and our co-authored series ‘On Periodisation’ of the latter.  

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Paper Trails CfP: ‘Hidden Voices’

Laura Sangha

You may know that last year saw the triumphant release of the first cluster of publications for Paper Trails: The Social Life of Archives and Collections. Paper Trails is a BOOC (Book as Open Online Content) published by UCL Press: a fully open access platform that allows for multi-form contributions across time. The BOOC offers space for contributions both from practitioners who study the past, as well as those who make the study of the past possible. So if you are an educator, librarian, historian, curator, collections manager, archivist or just someone interested in critical histories as well as reflections on practice, sources and materials – read on!

Paper Trails image

I am privileged to sit on the editorial board of the BOOC and in our most recent meeting we had a noteworthy discussion about how to describe the innovative format to others. One of the things we worried at was the extent to which we wanted people to think of Paper Trails as being a bit like an online journal – so for instance, when we add our second, new cluster of publications, we could call this a new ‘volume’ or a new ‘issue’ of the BOOC, and allocate numbers to different articles accordingly. By making an association with such a well-established format we could familiarise the BOOC concept, and I suppose the comparison could in some way lend it more academic ‘legitimacy’. Continue reading

Spotlight on Undergraduate Research: The Student Research Portfolio and the Georgian Ghosts Project

This guest post ties in with our traditional mid-September focus on teaching resources and pedagogy. Here, two Warwick Faculty of Arts undergraduates introduce us to an innovative interdisciplinary group research project that may provide inspiration for tutors elsewhere.

Jessica Barton and Dan Smith

This year at the University of Warwick, the Faculty of Arts introduced the Student Research Portfolio (SRP), which encouraged second- and third-year students to explore a topic, to develop their research and teamwork skills, and to produce an output. By allowing students across disciplines to work together, the SRP challenged its participants to step beyond the limits of their undergraduate degree and its typical forms of assessment. As the scheme was completed entirely online, students were also able to strengthen their digital skillset. We were part of one of the SRP groups, and worked on an outcome entitled The Georgian Ghosts Project. It was inspired by a ghost story from eighteenth-century Cork, Ireland, which has survived in a manuscript housed at the John Rylands Research Institute and Library, Manchester [1].

Most likely written by the prominent Methodist Hester Ann Rogers (1756-94), the manuscript records the dramatic conversion experience of a candle-maker called Cadwallader Acteson. He is haunted by the ghost of his deceased mistress, assaulted by a ‘hellish monster’ with long claws, and finally reassured by a heavenly voice promising redemption. Along the way he navigates knotty relationships with various women, most notably the ghostly mistress, a scheming maidservant who convinces him to attempt the murder of his wife, and the long-suffering wife herself. The story provides a thought-provoking perspective on eighteenth-century religion, gender roles, and the potentially perilous results of household tensions.

Portrait of Hester Ann Rogers. Wikimedia Commons
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