Over the summer of 2018 I assisted Dr. Heather Sharkey in writing a book that uses life stories and biography to trace modern historical connections between the Nile Valley—mainly Egypt, Sudan, South Sudan, and Ethiopia—and the rest of the world from the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries. One of her aims is to examine relations outside of a colonial or postcolonial context; for example Egypt and Sudan in relation to Britain. This project focused on preliminary research for two chapters on Mexico and India. The former follows a contingent of soldiers from current-day South Sudan who fought in Mexico for France during the imperial intervention in the 1860s. The latter follows the life of Bamba Müller, a woman of German and Abyssinian (Ethiopian) descent raised in an American Presbyterian mission in Cairo. She married the exiled Maharaja Dhuleep Singh of Punjab and moved to England with him where she entered the social circles of Queen Victoria. Through these life stories, Dr. Sharkey hopes to “promote a more nuanced understanding of how the Nile Valley has added to and fit within the weave of modern world history.”
Dr. Sharkey first selected several books to read and discuss over the summer to provide context to the historical periods researched. My primary responsibilities included creating an annotated bibliography on Sudanese-Mexican relations and the episode of Maximilian I and the Sudanese soldiers in Mexico; reading relevant books, articles, and historical documents in Spanish and providing English translations and synopses; finding additional relevant works using library databases to supplement our research; developing skills in archival research for future projects; and investigating works on biography as a literary and historical genre, and works on the practice of writing biography with regards to both this research project and a potential future course for Dr. Sharkey.
Through this project I not only learned volumes about Mexican, French, Egyptian, and Sudanese history, but firsthand encountered issues of examining bias in contemporary accounts of historical events, especially the use of translation as a vehicle for bias. I confronted the salience of race, ethnicity, and national origin in historical interactions and the similarities and differences among contemporary counterparts. Naturally, this presents the issue of transposing present-day U.S. framework onto different settings, and being mindful of this tendency. I also looked at politics through the lens of material culture and the media, as well as finding ways to trace the legacies of historical figures and events. In addition, this project exposed me for the first time to archival research, a useful skill for my education and just as likely future careers, even outside of the humanities, for many years to come.