Global Genealogies: Uncovering Working-Class Traditions in the British Empire

Alex Lindgren-Gibson, University of Mississippi

This paper seeks to uncover two types of submerged traditions: the histories of a globalized British working-class, dating back to the nineteenth century, and the use of genealogical research methods as part of professional historical practice. Genealogy has recently enjoyed a massive increase in popularity among the general population, while academic historians have cautiously and critically started (admitting to) using genealogical methods and databases in their own work. This paper argues for the benefits of genealogical work in doing history while paying mind to the ways in which such databases are constructed. This paper tracks the histories five families of working-class British origin who lived and worked in India in the second half of the nineteenth century. Combining genealogical databases with original archival research, this paper is able to answer questions around what motivated working-class men and women to seek out imperial service, settle in imperial spaces, or return to Britain. Thinking about the forces that compelled families and individuals to make these choices, or foreclosed possibilities, helps to explain the processes by which popular and familial memory of the working-class Raj became submerged. Men and women who had enjoyed an elevated social status could find it difficult to reintegrate into their communities of origin, which reinforced conformity rather than difference. As a result, returning Brits purposefully forgot tales of Indian service and elite pretensions in efforts to manage family relations. In contrast, those men and women who settled with their families in India or other parts of the empire—had a greater incentive to embrace a new class status and create family histories celebrating their climb up the social ranks of the British empire. Genealogical databases—which prize international connections—can help us to reconstruct histories earlier generations worked to conceal.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 145. The Future of Comparative-Historical Social Science Iii: Recovering Submerged Traditions