Dr Esme Cleall


Esme researches and teaches on the social and cultural history of the British Empire; the politics of difference; and race and disability in nineteenth-century Britain. She studied at Sheffield as an Undergraduate and as a Masters student. Following her PhD in History at UCL, she spent an additional year as a cross-disciplinary training fellow in the Department of Anthropology. After this, she taught at Liverpool for two years before returning to Sheffield in September 2012.

Her new project, Colonising Disability: race, impairment and otherness in the British Empire, c. 1800-1914 is funded by an AHRC-leadership fellowship and explores the construction of disability in the nineteenth-century British Empire. In particular, she is focussing on the relationship between ‘race’ and ‘disability’ in colonial thought.

Research Interests

Esme is interested in the historical construction of ‘difference’, inequality and exclusion particularly in the context of the nineteenth and early twentieth-century British Empire (including metropolitan Britain). She currently has two current projects:
Deaf Connections: a social and cultural history of deafness, c. 1800-1914.
This project analyses constructions and experiences of deafness in the nineteenth-century British World. Supported by a British Academy Small Grant, this multi-archival research explored deafness in nineteenth-century Britain, US, Ireland and Canada. It looks at how deaf people were singled out as particularly ‘other’ given their use of sign-language (seen as primitive) and strong communities as well as how deaf people responded to these claims. Outputs include articles in Gender and History, The Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History and History Workshop Journal.

Colonising Disability: race, impairment and otherness in the British Empire, c. 1800-1914.
Esme’s main current project, Colonising Disability, explores disability in the nineteenth and early twentieth-century British Empire. Whilst it is impossible to calculate the exact numbers of disabled people in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, taken as a proportion of the overall population, there were many more disabled people in Britain in the past than there are today. Illnesses causing deafness and/or blindness (such as scarlet fever) were prolific and there were high rates of industrial and agricultural accidents which were physically disabling. As literary critics have demonstrated, disabled people populate British culture. Yet disability has been ignored by the vast majority of historians. My project aims to address this. As such, Esme asks: How did disability and race intersect in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries? And how were the lives of disabled people informed by the wider colonial context?

Key Publications

From Divine Judgement to Colonial Courts: Missionary ‘Justice’ in British India, c. 1840-1914’, Cultural and Social History, 2017.

‘Jane Groom and the Deaf Colonists: Empire, Emigration and the Agency of Disabled People in the C19 British Empire’, History Workshop Journal, 2016, pp. 39-61

‘Deaf connections and global conversations: deafness and education in and beyond the British Empire, ca. 1800-1900’, Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History, April 2015

‘Orientalising Deafness: disability and race in imperial Britain, c. 19th’, Social Identities, vol. 21. No. 1, Spring 2015,pp. 22-36.

‘Silencing Deafness: displacing deafness in the nineteenth century’, PORTAL Journal of Multidisciplinary International Studies, vol. 12, no 1. 2015.

‘Deaf to the Word: deafness, gender and Protestantism in nineteenth-century Britain and Ireland’, Gender and History, November 2013, pp. 590-603.

‘Fur Flung Families and Transient Domesticities: missionary households in metropole and colony’, Victorian Review, 2013, pp. 163-179.

‘In defiance of the highest principles of justice: the indenturing of the Bechuana rebels and the ideals of empire, 1897-1900’, Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 40:4,             2012, pp. 601-619.

Missionary Discourses of Difference: Negotiating Otherness in the British Empire, c. 1840-1900, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. (pp.1-256)

‘Missionary Masculinities and War: the LMS in Southern Africa, c. 1860-1899’, South African Historical Journal, 61:2, June 2009, pp. 232-252.