UCL History Undergraduates, Callie Yoo and Olivier Croston, Awarded for Commended Essays in History

16 October 2023

UCL History students, Callie (Seoyoung) Yoo and Olivier Croston, have been awarded 'Highly Commended Entrants' in the History Category of The Global Undergraduate Awards 2023.

Collage image of Callie Yoo and Olivier Croston in UCL History

Callie and Olivier wrote their research essays for the UCL History Second-Year Research Seminar, 'Black Lives in the South Atlantic: West Africa, Americas, and the Caribbean in the Early Modern Era'. Callie's essay analysed 'The significance of Western Europe cartographic representation in West African sovereignty' and Olivier's essay explored, 'The role of the sacrament of baptism in the creation of identities and communities in the Spanish Americas'.

As part of UCL's celebration of Black History Month, Dr Chloe Ireton interviewed both students about their research projects and perspectives on learning what it means to be historians. Callie and Olivier are also the fifth graduates of the 'Black Lives in the South Atlantic' research seminar who have been recognised by The Global Undergraduate Awards in recent years (in the past, we also interviewed Shelby de Rond (2021), Zahra Farooque (2021), and Luigi Muci (2020).

Chloe Ireton Interviews Callie (Seoyoung) Yoo [CY] and Olivier Croston [OC]
Pictured left to right in main image

1. Hi Callie and Olivier, thanks so much for talking to us! You were both recently selected as Highly Commended Entrants in the History category of The Global Undergraduate Awards 2023 Programme. Can you tell us a little more about your essays?

CY: My pleasure! My essay aims to explore how West and West-Central African monarchs shaped their agency and representation during diplomatic exchanges with Western Europeans in the early modern era. In the essay, I tried to link a spatial history analysis of Mappa Mundi (world map translated into Latin) and documented sources, such as letters, to explore the role of West and West-Central African monarchs in diplomacy. I focused on how Christian elements and the discourses on ‘Prester John’ shaped Western European cartographic depictions of West and West-Central African monarchs, highlighting how the cartographies chart changes in European notions about West and West-Central Africa over time. Diplomatic letters also provided contextual details, beyond the limitations of cartographic sources, demonstrating the autonomy of certain West and West-Central African kings. I tried to explore the complex relationship between West and West-Central Africans and Western Europeans within a Christian framework by showing that African Monarchs were not the victims of Christian dominium (Christian authority that justified European Expansion) but instead, were often active diplomatic players who shaped their sovereignties from the earliest encounters of the West-Africa-Europe relations. 

OC: Sure! In this essay I attempted to highlight how enslaved Black people who had experienced the trauma and displacement of the Middle Passage sometimes managed to exercise agency in their lives as enslaved people in the Atlantic world. Many histories of slavery have focused on the Middle Passage and the economic consequences of the transatlantic trade in enslaved people, and rightly so, but rarely explore the individual lives and ideas of those who were enslaved. This trend, however, is changing in the historiography as more scholars have begun to focus on the lives of those who were enslaved, and it is this work which I was trying to engage with in my research essay. For my research essay, I explored how free and enslaved Black people in the Spanish Americas sometimes managed to exercise a degree of agency through their engagement with the sacrament of baptism. Partaking in the sacrament of baptism, allowed some enslaved and free Black people to cement and create familial ties with the other enslaved people, access potential intercession, as well as create an independent and unique idea of what it meant to be Black in the Spanish Americas, which was often completely different to what the Catholic Church and the Spanish monarchy had envisioned.

2. You wrote the research essay in the Second Year Research Seminar 'Black Lives in the South Atlantic: West Africa, Americas, and the Caribbean in the Early Modern Era.' Why (or how) did you decide to write a Research Essay on that topic? 

CY: When we discussed and analyzed European Mappa Mundis in seminars, I was intrigued by the perspectives, discourses, representations, and symbolisms within them. I was also fascinated with the notions and stories behind the figure of Prester John, a figure who cartographers always represented on Mappa Mundis. I wondered whether the cartographic representation of Prester John would have interconnections with how Europeans preconceived African kings, and I started to think about the topic and question day and night. Then, I read two books on African kingship – African Kings and Black Slaves by Herman Bennett and Medieval Ethiopian Kingship, Craft, and Diplomacy with Latin Europe by Verena Kerbs – that utterly changed my perspectives, and I decided to build my essay in line with their scholarship, as both works challenge conventional views about African sovereignties.  However, I was well aware of the challenges in analyzing cartographic sources and incorporating spatial history into broad historiography of African sovereignty, so I took a long time to settle on maps as the key historical sources for my research project. I appreciate Dr Ireton's support in that process, as my research would have been very difficult without her guidance. 

OC: This essay was largely inspired by a reading that we read for the 'Black Lives in the South Atlantic' seminar by Larissa Brewer Garcia, titled, Beyond Babel; Translations of Blackness in Colonial Peru and New Granada, who highlights the role of Black enslaved interpreters in mediating between Jesuit missionaries and enslaved Africans in early seventeenth-century Cartagena de Indias, the highest-volume slave-trading port of the early modern Atlantic world. I was interested by how these enslaved translators were engaging in, and shaping, the process of creolisation of the Catholic Church in the Spanish Americas. The process of creolisation interested me, as I enjoy studying the history of Christianity, and the challenges that missionaries faced when proselytising. For example, I had always been interested in accounts of miracles or relics, and the complaints by disgruntled missionaries to leaders of the Catholic Church. Therefore, I knew that I would enjoy writing a research essay based on sources produced by and about missionaries.  

3. Can you describe some of the primary sources that you analysed in your essay, and share with us some reflections about your experiences working with these primary sources and / or the challenges that you faced during the research or writing process? 

CY: I used three Western European cartographies and a letter in my essay. I used Carta Catalana from 15th century Catalonia, one of The Queen Mary Atlas collections by Diogo Homen from the 16th century, and ‘Map of West Coast of Africa’ of a Portolano published in 16th century Spain. The main challenge in analyzing these sources was that there were few secondary readings for me to build on to develop my argument. Furthermore, Mappa Mundi generally had a lot of limitations in its genre as a historical source, as the artifacts are created solely based on the cartographer’s perception of the world and, therefore, are very subjective. I needed in-depth contextual analysis to diminish the potential negative impact the cartographic sources could have on my research. However, on the bright side, Mappa Mundi can provide various and multi-layered perspectives on certain discourses, as these maps exist within the cognitive framework and the intellectual knowledge of the author. These multi-layered perspectives embedded in the Mappa Mundis is what fascinated and drew me to the sources in the first place, and, therefore, I enjoyed working with the sources.
However, I still wanted to fill the gaps of knowledge and develop analysis beyond the cartographic material and, therefore, I decided to incorporate a set of letters into my analysis. I analyzed the letters exchanged between King Afonso I (1509-1543) of Kongo and Portuguese Kings in 1526 and 1539. These letters allowed me to explore how a Kongolese king (and monarchs more generally) had agency in shaping his relationships with Western Europeans, which he used to consolidate his domestic power within the kingdom. Using written sources therefore allowed me to develop my analysis further. Weaving an analysis of sources produced for very different reasons and from different genres of historical evidence - with cartographic material and diplomatic letters - was challenging. However, I managed to weave various secondary readings and my analysis of primary sources together to create one argumentative thread. Therefore, I am happy with the methodology and sources I used.

OC: The main primary source that I worked with was a collection of statements by those who testified in the beatification petition of Pedro Claver, a Jesuit missionary who had spent much of his life baptising enslaved people in the port of Cartagena de Indias. This was a challenging primary source to work with for me. As there was no English translation, I had to rely on my rudimentary Spanish and the help of Dr Ireton to work with the Spanish translation of an Italian manuscript. Despite these challenges, I really enjoyed the whole process of working with this primary source. The genre of the source is literally hagiographic. Every single testimony sought to present Claver in the most holy way possible. But the source also contains valuable testimonies of Black interpreters who worked alongside Claver. To find an archival source that contains the testimony of enslaved Black people is extremely rare, as imperial power structures of the period tended to suppress Black testimony and voices. It is important for historians to draw on sources like these in order to help create a better understanding of the past. 
4. How did the process of researching and writing this essay help you to develop as a historian? 

CY: Writing this research essay has helped me to develop my skills as a historian because I had to link various genres of sources to develop one argument. I gained an insight into the skills required to analyze primary sources and engage with secondary scholarship, as the research process made me think in layered perspectives when engaging with historiography. Most importantly, I gained confidence in building my ideas amongst leading scholars. I had never engaged with other scholars or historical archives, and never had I thought about myself within the field of history as much as I did with this process. More crucially, writing the essay made me realize the influence and responsibilities of historians in shaping memories and narratives. Therefore, I did my best to clearly articulate the methodology and interpretation of my essay, as what I wrote in the paper would leave a footprint on the historiography of African sovereignty. Furthermore, my positionality of not coming from an African heritage made me realize how my argument could impact other communities, especially in West and West-Central Africa, so I tried to be cautious when researching and writing this essay. This seminar taught me the academic skills and ethical responsibilities of historians.

OC: I think this process of writing a research essay made me realise that even as an undergraduate I am able to contribute to the vast body of historiography which exists on this topic. I think that this is the essay where I have felt most engaged with the other historians who have written on the same subject, by paying due homage to their ground-breaking works while also maintaining a critical distance and dialogue with them regarding the subject. 

Significantly, I think that writing the essay made me realise the importance of the study of history in shaping our recognition of the past. The sources and testimonies that I read for this research essay rarely form part of historical narratives about the past. It was my role as a historian to weave all the sources and testimonies into a coherent narrative that attempts to respect these voices whilst also trying to explain that these voices have been suppressed from the narrative for so long and explain why it is important these histories are told.

5. Collaboration between seminar members is a key element of the Research Seminar, 'Black Lives in the South Atlantic: West Africa, Americas, and the Caribbean in the Early Modern Era.' How did the process of collaboration and peer-review affect your approach, research, and/or writing of the essay?

CY: Collaboration between seminar members helped me a lot in developing my research. Often, my peer group provided valuable feedback on my essay structure, and often helped me to organize my thoughts and ideas. They also showed unwavering support when I struggled to settle on my research topic and sources, and while I was deciding whether to analyze maps. They helped me to establish how I might approach cartographic material, suggesting ideas that eventually shaped my research. They also gave me invaluable feedback on the structure of my essay and provided support throughout. Without them, I would have struggled with my research project.

OC: Collaboration and peer-review made the entire process of researching and writing this essay a lot easier. We were all going through similar struggles in terms of how to structure our essays and how we should analyse sources, so talking through our problems was a great way to work through the issues and find solutions. 

Going through the process of peer-review and constant collaboration also allowed me to improve my essay as I received continual feedback on sections of my essay and other drafts of my analysis of particular sources. This was great, as the peer-review process provided me with a constant stream of feedback which is often not available in other types of seminars and allowed me to improve my research essay continuously.
6. What tips and advice would you pass on to current undergraduate students enrolled in the Second Year Research Seminar?

CY: Take opportunities and be confident in yourself. UCL History and the research seminar provide different types of support to help you to shape your research and passion. Specifically, to the current students of the ‘Black Lives in the early Atlantic’ module: you will have many opportunities to engage with different primary sources. Spend time analyzing the readings, letters, diaries, trial cases, and cartographies to discover what you truly like. Then, follow your heart and shape your research around that! Be confident with your ideas, and don’t forget you have all the support you need when you are lost. Also, 5,000 words is a lot less than you think it is! I was scared at first as well, but it is doable, and you will appreciate the result you get from it.

OC: I think the most important advice is to pick a subject that you find the most interesting within the Seminar no matter how niche it is and to run with it. This a topic that you will be writing and researching about for a good part of the academic year, and you really won’t get anything good out of it, grade wise or academically, if you don’t pick a topic that you don’t enjoy or aren't interested in. In other words, follow your passions and interests when deciding on a research essay topic. 
7. This month is Black History Month, and some of the topics of the Research Seminar 'Black Lives in the South Atlantic: West Africa, Americas, and the Caribbean in the Early Modern Era' are important in how we remember and write about Black History. Why do you think Black History Month is so important?

CY: As a student from a minority ethnic background and a former Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) students' officer at UCL, I cannot stress enough the importance of celebrating Black History Month. Although I am not from an African heritage, I know how it feels to be underrepresented and misrepresented. I initially took this module to understand Black lives and how the moment of encounter in the early modern period shaped Black representation today. Through the research project, I discovered that Black History is not only about the history of the transatlantic trade in enslaved people or migration. Instead, there are histories where Africans used their agency and shaped their authority during interactions with Western Europeans. Also, many Africans navigated European legal structures in desperate attempts to seek greater degrees of freedom. It is important to emphasize these aspects of history when honouring Black History. Black History Month is so important because it is a chance for all of us to celebrate Black representation and agency in our history. Lastly, it is crucial to keep that momentum throughout the year, not only acknowledging the Blackness in our history during October.

OC: I think Black History Month is important because it is a celebration of stories and lives which have long been suppressed by how history is taught and understood in Britain. The suppression of Black voices from public understandings about history in Britain erases the experiences of millions of people from around the world. This suppression of Black narratives is dangerous as it conceals the institutions and organisational systems which have and perpetuated racist thinking in society. This concealment of institutions prevents us from moving past this system of systematic racism, so to truly overcome this barrier we need to understand and recognise the full spectrum of history.

Black History Month is also important as it expands on topics which are not studied in enough depth in schools, such as the transatlantic slave trade and lived experiences of enslaved people. This omission is problematic, given the significance of this narrative, especially to British history. The history of slavery is also such an important part of global history as it has left a lasting legacy which is still felt to this day, and it must be reckoned with and explored no matter how uncomfortable the material is. This reckoning is something which I wanted to try and address in this essay, largely through examining personal accounts, which detailed how enslaved people lived their lives in the Spanish Americas. My contribution to this field was through an examination of how enslaved people attempted to exercise their agency in a slave society, by creating communities and an identity through the sacrament of baptism, and attempted to create a place of respite in an environment that was entirely hostile to them and their lives.
8. You are now in your final year with us! What are your plans for the future?
CY: I plan to pursue a master’s degree in interdisciplinary studies that includes history. I wish to do more historical research that links back to my East Asian heritage. Through the research seminar, I realized how much I deeply enjoy researching and the value of contributing to a history I am passionate about. I aim to expand that passion to further academic studies or transform my research knowledge into shaping a better global future.

OC: I am fortunate enough to be spending my Year Abroad at McGill, so that has given me plenty of opportunities to travel around, especially to some stunning natural landscapes which seems to be around every corner in Canada, so I am looking forward to exploring that – Nova Scotia seems especially exciting! I am not sure I have any concrete plans, but my main goal will be to enjoy myself. One way that I hope to do this is by moving slightly away from History and taking subjects that are new, or that I have not studied since leaving school. This term I’m picking up German again as well as studying politics and next term I might renew my love/hate relationship with Literature. I am also hoping to improve my French; perhaps I will return with a Québécois accent!