Professor Ruth Watson

Ruth Watson image 2
College positions
University positions
Associate Professor of African History
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My interest in African history arises from having spent some of my childhood in the ancient Yoruba city of Ile-Ife, where I completed my primary schooling and also attended secondary school. After a short spell at a comprehensive school in Leeds, Yorkshire, I went back to my home country of Australia, where I developed a strong desire to return to Nigeria and discover more about its past. This got underway in 1994, when I began my D.Phil. research at the University of Oxford on the history of chieftaincy in Ibadan (another Yoruba city), which was founded as a war camp in 1829. I took up my post of lecturer in African History at the University of Cambridge in 2006 and became a fellow of Clare College in 2010. My PhD examined chieftaincy in the Yoruba city of Ibadan during the pre-colonial and colonial periods. I explored how the military chiefs of Ibadan adapted to the introduction of British colonial rule from the late nineteenth century, and what happened to ideas of political authority and civic culture. My second project built on this work to examine the connections between literary culture, colonial society and the politics of 'respectability' in Yorubaland (southwestern Nigeria) during the early twentieth century, using the diary of an Ibadan gentleman (Chief Akinpelu Obisesan) as a source. My current project is titled ‘Crowds in World History’. Partly inspired by my work on African urban cultures, it explores ‘the crowd’ as a social and historical category. Conceiving crowds as more than simply aggregations of people, it examines how people become conscious of being part of a crowd, and how in turn such crowds develop their own social momentum. It will document how ideas about the crowd and instances of crowd action (such as riots) are an important theme in world history from ancient to contemporary times.

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