The Wrath of Mountains: Explaining Volcanic Eruptions from the Late Eighteenth Century to the Modern Day

“The Straits of Sunda: Terrible Volcanic Eruption.” Illustrated London News, 8 Sept. 1883, p. 229. The Illustrated London News Historical Archive, 1842-2003

By Amelie Bonney, Gale Ambassador at the University of Oxford

On December 9, 2019, the deadly volcanic eruption of Mount Whakaari in New Zealand sparked new discussions over risk assessment in volcanic regions. While sudden volcanic eruptions make it difficult for scientists to assess risks in such areas, the belief that eruptions can be predicted thanks to science also leads to increasingly hazardous activities such as tourism in dangerous volcanic regions. How and why have humans become so intrepid when it comes to volcanoes?

The Gale Primary Sources archives provide not only newspaper articles but also a range of valuable monographs and visual sources, ranging from drawings to photographs, which allow us to investigate how our understanding and perception of volcanic eruptions has changed over the last few centuries. The sources demonstrate that the scientific community’s investigations led to the emergence of new understandings of dangerous volcanic eruptions from the late eighteenth century onwards. Paradoxically, scientific explanations of volcanic eruptions created a heightened sense of danger but also led to an increase in risk-taking behaviour.

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“Even the Sacramental Cup Was Not Exempt from Adulteration” – The Hazards of Drinking an Old Bottle of Claret

│By Amelie Bonney, Gale Ambassador at the University of Oxford│

Have you recently enjoyed a special, vintage bottle of wine to celebrate the New Year with your family or friends? You might be surprised to learn that such celebrations might have been quite dangerous during the nineteenth century. Expecting the crimson-coloured beverage to enrapture their senses and coat their tongue in luscious flavours of dried blackberry, leather and tobacco, wine aficionados were often far from suspecting that this elixir could easily turn out to be a cheap, dyed, falsified drink, or worse – deadly poison. In an age where strict regulations exist to control food and beverage adulteration, such hazardous dyes are no longer used, but delving into Gale’s Historic Newspapers allows us to better understand how such dangerous adulteration was allowed to occur during the nineteenth century.

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Was Oxford University Labour Club “Moving Towards Communism”? How Primary Sources Can Help You Track the History of Your Student Society

Banner reading 'Oxford University Labour Club, Forward to Socialism'

| By Grace Davis, Gale Ambassador at the University of Oxford |

The term “primary sources” gives me slightly traumatic flashbacks to my History GCSE when, as a baby academic, I had to explain how a picture can present a biased interpretation of the world. Now, a more grown-up (though not fully fledged) academic, the idea of “primary sources” is not as scary, but I often still find myself shying away from using them in my academic work. I’m happy to announce, however, that primary sources can be used for more than your university essays! Gale Primary Sources includes millions of pages of primary sources on almost every topic imaginable, including your hobbies and topics of interest beyond the lecture theatre. Once you start unearthing primary sources about things that fascinate you outside your degree, you may just develop greater confidence and familiarity with them and start feeling more comfortable incorporating them into university work too!

Read moreWas Oxford University Labour Club “Moving Towards Communism”? How Primary Sources Can Help You Track the History of Your Student Society

Comfy in a Corset – Why Nineteenth-century Underwear Isn’t as Scary as You Think

"DOUGLAS & SHERWOOD'S CELEBRATED TOURNURE CORSET. (Front view)." Godey's Lady's Book, 1 Apr. 1859, p. 296. American Historical Periodicals,

│ By Maya Thomas, Gale Ambassador at the University of Oxford │

From Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind to Elizabeth Swann in Pirates of the Caribbean, it seems that no pretty woman in a historical drama is complete without participating in the infamous “corset scene”. You know the one: the beautiful protagonist reluctantly sucks in her stomach, gripping onto the bedposts as a maid furiously tugs at her corset strings. We watch with morbid fascination as her tiny waist is made tinier still, compressed painfully in an ornate whalebone cage.

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In Praise of Folly: A catalogue of April Fool’s hoaxes with Gale Primary Sources

Spaghetti growing on trees documentary

By Calvin Liu, Gale Ambassador at the University of Oxford
I am a second-year English student at University College, Oxford – and one of the Gale Ambassadors for Oxford University. I am a huge lover of everything Romantic and Modernist – from Wordsworth to Woolf. When I am not in the depths of an essay crisis, I spend my time collecting fountain pens and looking at old books. Born and raised in Hong Kong, I am still getting to grips with the English weather and am partial to punting picnics on a rare sunny day.

‘April is the cruellest month’, so went the ominous opening line of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Perhaps. But the first day of April, at the very least, has been witness to some of history’s biggest public hoaxes – many of which are hilarious and cruel in equal measures. From the Victorian “Grand Exhibition of Donkeys” in 1864 to the 1957 BBC documentary on spaghetti-bearing trees, these moments of meticulously organised journalistic foibles harken back to a now bygone age before the rise of wide-spread corporate PR-stunts and instantaneous internet trolling. The abundance of April-fool’s-related material in the Gale archives sheds light on the long history of a yearly occasion that stretches as far back as the time of Chaucer, who slyly alludes to the day as the ‘thirty-second of March’ in The Nun’s Priest’s Tale (a story of a farmer tricked into a singing contest against a fox) as early as the 1300s.

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George Macartney, Kashgar and the Great Game

By Dr Alexander Morrison, Fellow & Tutor in History, New College, University of Oxford

The exciting new archive China and the Modern World: Diplomacy and Political Secrets launches this month. This will be the third instalment in the China and the Modern World programme, which covers many aspects of nineteenth- and twentieth-century China, including its international relations, trade, and domestic and foreign policy. Diplomacy and Political Secrets is sourced from the India Office Records at the British Library, and presents a wealth of rare records, gathered by the British, pertaining to the relations among China, Britain, British India, British Burma, Central Asia, Russia and Japan. Below, academic advisor Dr Alexander Morrison discusses one of the influential characters whose career can be traced through these files.

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Francis Barber: Samuel Johnson’s Jamaican friend

By Calvin Liu, Gale Ambassador at the University of Oxford
I am a second-year English student at University College, Oxford – and one of the Gale Ambassadors for Oxford University. I am a huge lover of everything Romantic and Modernist – from Wordsworth to Woolf. When I am not in the depths of an essay crisis, I spend my time collecting fountain pens and looking at old books. Born and raised in Hong Kong, I am still getting to grips with the English weather and am partial to punting picnics on a rare sunny day.

The figure of Dr Samuel Johnson has come to be seen as the canonised cliché of a certain type of stuffy Englishness. His very name evokes scenes from a Blackadder episode where an august but temperamental enlightenment gentleman, draped with a flamboyant powdered wig, raves to his friends in a coffee house about the sorry state of ‘demotic Anglo-Saxon’ as it stands in the modern age. Not to mention the lexicographical feat that is Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language, often touted as the grandsire of modern English dictionaries from the OED to Merriam-Webster – and bane to the lives of English Literature students ever since its publication! What is, however, less well-known is his remarkable friendship with Francis Barber, a Jamaican freedman who first arrived in rural Yorkshire as a child. Barber became a close companion to Johnson during a period of deep depression after the death of his wife and was named the executor and ‘residuary legatee’ (as James Boswell puts it in his 1791 Life of Samuel Johnson) of Johnson’s estate after his death (Gale platform p.226).

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