Migration, opium and Empire: Rethinking Victorian literature

BBC Radio 3 named Dr Fariha Shaikh one of its New Generation Thinkers in 2021, following a nationwide search for ten academics with ground-breaking ideas. A literary and cultural historian, her interests span the British Empire in the 19th Century, emigration from Britain to Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and the literary significance of the Opium Wars. Her work is redefining our understanding of the Victorians – and their legacy today.

Many people are interested in my work because they may have had family who have emigrated. I've found the personal interest in my work on emigration so fascinating. People love to hear stories about their families, and learn about what migrant life was really like. They also like being able to put contemporary debates on migration into historical perspective.

One of the difficulties of working on colonial migration is knowing that colonial migration led to the erasure of indigenous people, and this genocide is often understood as something which happened in the past, even though it continues to have real-life consequences today.

The 19th Century is fascinating when you look at how the empire fosters increased migration across the world. I used a variety of sources to examine this period of settler migration including emigrant letters, diaries, periodicals and autobiographical writing. I also looked at how these accounts affected novels and art, and how so many of the ideas around family and home were shaped by colonial emigration.

The Opium Wars are a piece of conveniently forgotten history that I've started to research. This trade triangle really doesn't show Britain at its best. At the moment, I'm digging out sources from the archives, but I've become interested in the debates around opium in the periodical press from the time to try to understand how Britain understood itself, and will then look at its impact on literature.

I moved back two centuries when I started working on 19th Century literature! My previous focus had always been around contemporary post-colonial literature so this felt like a big departure for me. There is something so powerful and moving about visiting archives, the physicality of touching old books and letters. My interest really grew out of that.

There is something so powerful and moving about visiting archives, the physicality of touching old books and letters. My interest really grew out of that.

I was delighted at being named a New Generation Thinker, a joint collaboration between the Arts and Humanities Research Council and BBC Radio 3. I'm passionate about public engagement and this is a great way to highlight my research in 19th Century literature and settler colonial migration. I'm excited to be involved in the whole programme of events bringing my ideas to a wider audience.

The conversations we are having within literature have shifted since I was an undergraduate. We are including more authors of colour, non-heteronormative and more inclusive, not just around race and colour on our curriculum. Students have led this change, and it's shifted things so we get a much wider lens of enquiry. This is great because it means that we can begin to generate more nuanced discussions around empire.

My five favourite books

Fariha shares five of her favourite books, which include Victorian literature and modern classics.

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