As part of our mission to undertake research on the Society’s Collections and to make them more accessible, we have awarded 10 Wiley Research Fellowships for 2020-21.
Every month are speaking to two of our Research Fellows to find out more about their projects.
Rick Mitcham (Kindai University, Japan) is taking a critical look at the missionary-mountaineer-geographer Walter Weston’s contact with the Society between 1892 and 1924. Meanwhile, Fred Morton (University of Botswana, Botswana) is exploring the multimodal landscape of African urbanisms. We caught up with them to discuss their research, why they applied for the Fellowship and what they’re hoping to find in the digital archives.
How did you come to be interested in your current research?
Rick Mitcham (RM): Interest in my current project about the missionary-mountaineer-geographer, the Reverend Walter Weston (1861-1940), and his contact with the Society, may be traced back to research I conducted on the activities of humanitarians involved in the London-based British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society and the Aborigines Protection Society between 1884 and 1933. These two organisations merged in 1909 to form the Anti-Slavery and Aborigines Protection Society.
I encountered Walter Weston for the first time some years ago in Kamikochi (上高地), a highland valley sequestered within the Hida mountain range inside Nagano prefecture(長野県), Japan, a popular tourist destination only open to the public between the months of April and November. Along one of the trails is a memorial plaque dedicated to Weston, which bears a list of his achievements including being a recipient of the [Japanese] Order of Sacred Treasures (fourth class) and author of Mountaineering and Exploration in the Japanese Alps, as well as affiliations including Honorary Member of the Japanese Alpine Club, Member of the Alpine Club, and Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. His life, besides coinciding with the period covered by my earlier research, featured people like him. These included missionaries, travel writers, explorers and officials either in situ within or traversing regions around the world, in which local populations were subject to colonial rule and on whom the London-based humanitarians relied for information concerning abuses of power by colonial regimes and their agents.
One person who figured prominently in the earlier research was John Harris. He, along with his wife Alice, were protestant missionaries based in the Congo Free State, the colonial regime in West Africa, presided over by King Leopold II of Belgium. Alarmed at witnessing the brutalities inflicted on the bodies of labourers by agents of the rapacious concessionaire labour system established under Leopold for the purpose of extracting and exporting latex, the Harrises were among those who sought by means of photography and firsthand testimony to bring the matter to the attention of the British public. Later, John Harris became the first secretary of the newly merged Anti-Slavery and Aborigines Protection Society. In 1911, with the Congo still a key site on the global map of British humanitarian concern, worried by the lack of information flowing out of the colony, now under the control of the Belgium government, Harris raised the funds through the Society for him and his wife to visit the region in order to see for themselves what was happening there and to report their findings through the pages of the Society’s journal, the Anti-Slavery Reporter and Aborigines Friend.
It was, I suppose, the similarities as well as the contrasts between the figures of John Harris (who was not a member of the Royal Geographical Society) and Walter Weston and the narratives that they generated of the landscapes whose terrain they traversed, as well as the people whom they encountered along their ways, that grabbed my attention in the first instance. This prompted me to read Weston’s books about his explorations of the mountain ranges of Nagano prefecture. In addition to the one cited on the memorial, he wrote another published 20 years later recounting his return to many of the places described in the earlier book called The Playground of the Far East.
Fred Morton (FM): I have joined a group of archaeologists, IT specialists, linguists, anthropologists and historians to populate a digital platform showcasing early Tswana settlements, with a particular emphasis on stone walling (up to the mid-19th century) and more recent types of settlement enclosures that represent forms of Tswana 'urbanism'. The project is dubbed 'Metsemegologolo' i.e., old towns in the Tswana language. Funded by the Mellon Foundation for three years, the finished product will engage with students, scholars and lay enthusiasts providing layers of images and data that lend itself to exploring the cultural and social lives of the people who built and lived in these settlements.
What made you apply for a WDA Research Fellowship?
RM: Being located in Japan and so far away from Britain (which I still regard as home), I imagined not for an instant that an opportunity such as the one that the WDA Research Fellowship would afford - the prospect, that is, of engaging in research in a British archive without having to physically visit it or otherwise having to pay an exorbitant fee for the privilege of accessing it remotely - could have been possible. As a Fellow of the Society and a member of its various Research Groups, the dozens of research opportunities that were posted were restricted to researchers based in Britain. When I learned that the 10 WDA Research Fellowships were open to researchers globally, the knowledge and experience within the field of historical geography I had accrued during my various research over six years had, with the passage of time, all but fossilised and with it a deep and profound sense of loss of my identity as a historical geographer, were instantly restored. I simply couldn’t not apply!
FM: I have been studying pre-colonial Tswana for several decades, though for most of the time sticking to interviews and the archives, with visits to libraries to access hard copy texts of travellers, etc. With the digitisation of many printed articles and books dating back to the early 19th century, I have accomplished a lot from my laptop at home. However, it is clear that many sources remain accessible in standard repositories only in the original, so when the Wiley platform went online, I was among the first in the queue!
How does your project sit within your wider research interests?
RM: The current project builds on and extends several of my interests pursued in the earlier research on British humanitarianism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, particularly the impulse to travel, the manner in which the travel was conducted, and the resulting outputs in the form of lectures, articles and books that emanated from it.
FM: My role as a historian is to bring to Metsemegologolo oral traditions, oral literature, maps, and photographs that help explicate the sites featured in the platform. Work I have particularly been engaged with for the past few years is with a team of archaeologists mapping, surveying and excavating two stonewall settlements in southern Botswana.
What are you hoping to find in the digital archives?
RM: Being familiar with Weston’s first two books, I am hoping that his correspondence with the Society will further illuminate or reveal his motivation for exploring the mountain ranges of Nagano prefecture, his decision to join the Society, whether he saw himself as a geographer, what geography meant to him, the relationship between mountaineering, exploration, and missionary work as well as the manner of his return journey to Britain and his activities thereafter.
FM: I have been looking for any supplementary data, documents, maps or photos that will be suitable for layering in the Metsemegologolo platform. Among the 'finds' is a series of photographs of a Tswana woman constructing a pot, from assembling the materials and building it layer by layer up to the firing and display of the finished product. The sites we have carried out research have a great deal of pottery remains, or shards, some of which are decorated. These photos can now walk our viewers to the process by which they came to be.
Find out more about our Wiley Digital Archive Research Fellowships.
Find out more about research on our Collections.