An Interview between the CJH/ACH and Kate M. Burlingham

March 9, 2018

Photo of Kate Burlingham

Kate M. Burlingham is an expert in US foreign relations and global history, and an assistant professor of history at California State University, Fullerton. Her article, “From Hearing to Heresy: The Temporary Slavery Commission, the Congregational Church, and the Foundations of Anti-Colonial Organizing in Angola,” appeared in the most recent issue of the Canadian Journal of History/Annales canadiennes d’histoire, a themed issue discussing New Histories of Twentieth-Century Decolonization.

We asked Dr. Burlingham what prompted her to pursue a career in history.

“Throughout much of my early schooling, I had excellent history teachers. In high school, we took frequent field trips to the Boston Public Library to comb through microfilm. Those were experiences I loved and that shaped my course decisions when I arrived at college. It helped to be surrounded by beautiful libraries; I grew up in Cambridge MA at a time when anyone could walk into the Harvard libraries to do research or study. I also grew up in a family that valued history as a field of study and as a way to understand the present.”

Dr. Burlingham notes that this is not always the case. “As a professor, I’m often having to ‘sell’ the major for the skills it gives you, regardless if students intend to pursue a career in history. That was never a justification I had to make.”

Dr. Burlingham told us that her historical interests are wide-ranging, but she is particularly interested in the actions of Americans outside of the United States and the sometimes unexpected results of these actions. “[T]his [interest] really began in graduate school when I observed that I was the only American historian taking classes in non-western history. For example, most of my colleagues in African history courses who weren’t Africanists were Europeanists or from other disciplines. Given the role of the US in the world, I think it is imperative that US historians also be compelled to take global history and area studies courses.” These classroom experiences made her curious as to how the US looked to outsiders. “Such a perspective,” she explained, “has allowed me to move in and out of the categories historians usually use to label themselves. For me, it makes things more interesting because I’m constantly learning from a wide body of scholars who aren’t always talking to each other but should be.”

Dr. Burlingham’s article in the CJH/ACH examines the importance of Congregational Missions and Mission schools in creating a political network in Angola that became central to the nation’s independence movement. She notes, however, that this was not the intent of the Congregational Mission. “Missionaries, at least at this early date, were not discussing the end of colonial order but rather its reform. It’s not until decades later that you get a post-WWII generation of missionaries who have more ‘revolutionary’ ideas about the end of European colonialism and even then, often for practical reasons, they tended to be relatively cautious in calling for an end to the colonialism.”

Another key aspect to the narrative told in “From Hearing to Heresy” is the Report on Employment of Native Labor in Portuguese Africa, also known as the Ross Report. This report was presented to the League of Nations’ Temporary Slavery Commission and exposed the inhumane forced labour policies of Portuguese Angola to the growing international community. We asked Dr. Burlingham what brought her to the Ross Report.

“I came across references to the Ross Report when I was doing research for my dissertation in Portugal and Angola on the larger history of the Congregational Missions in Angola. The Report itself, and references to it, linger in official Portuguese government correspondence for years after it happened. I think for government officials it demonstrated to them all the things they feared would come from Protestant missionary work in Angola [and] so was a useful reference point for them to come back to over and over.”

Portugal’s reaction to the report, and their subsequent embarrassment on the international stage, prompted them to react violently in Angola. The state blamed the Congregational Missions and Protestant Angolans for the report and set out to diminish the missions’ influence and presence. Asked if she thought there was any way to avoid the heavily nationalistic response Portugal had to the Report, Dr. Burlingham replied, “That’s hard to say with any certainty but I’d be inclined to say no. At the moment when discussions in the League of Nations were occurring there is extreme European concern that the League would become an extra-national power that would dictate what should happen within nations’ domestic affairs. It’s that kind of fear that eventually kept the United States out of the League. Add to that concern, the image of a rising US superpower and a decline in European hegemony, of which Portugal owned a smaller piece at this point, and you have a recipe for a nationalist backlash.” She added that it is also possible that Portugal was “doubtful whether other European powers would come to their rescue or if they would use them as a sacrificial lamb on the path toward trying to convince the world that colonialism was truly humanitarian.”

Kate M. Burlingham’s article, “From Hearing to Heresy: The Temporary Slavery Commission, the Congregational Church, and the Foundations of Anti-Colonial Organizing in Africa,” is available FREE to read for a limited time: https://doi.org/10.3138/cjh.ach.52.3.02.

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