Esme Cleall Profile PictureDr Esme Cleall

B.A., M.A. (Sheffield), Ph.D. (UCL)

Lecturer in the History of the British Empire

British Empire; colonialism; postcolonialism; India; southern Africa; race; gender; disability; missionaries; feminism.

+44 (0)114 22 22619 | Jessop West 3.07

On Leave 2019/20



I research and teach on the social and cultural history of the British Empire; the politics of difference; and race and disability in nineteenth-century Britain.

I studied at Sheffield as an Undergraduate and as a Masters student. I did my PhD in History at UCL spending an additional year as a cross-disciplinary training fellow in the Department of Anthropology. I then taught at Liverpool for two years before returning to Sheffield in September 2012.

My first book, Missionary Discourses of Difference: negotiating otherness in the British Empire, 1840-1900, explored the difference of gender and race through the writings of British missionaries stationed in nineteenth-century India and southern Africa. In particular, I focussed on the family and domesticity; sickness and medicine; and colonial violence; as key areas where anxieties around difference were particularly acute.

My 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, I am focussing on the relationship between ‘race’ and ‘disability’ in colonial thought.

Professional Roles

Disability Studies at the University of Sheffield – member

History of Feminism Collective – founding member



My research is on the politics of colonial difference and exclusion in the British Empire. I am particularly interested in the production of categories of otherness including those based around race, gender, religion and disability.

Missionary Discourses of Difference: negotiating otherness in the British Empire, c. 1840-1900.

My monograph, Missionary Discourses of Difference: negotiating otherness in the British Empire, 1840-1900, explores the difference of gender and race through the writings of British missionaries stationed in nineteenth-century India and southern Africa. In particular, I focus on the family and domesticity; sickness and medicine; and colonial violence; as key areas where anxieties around difference were particularly acute. The basis of this project was my PhD research supported by the AHRC, and for an additional fourth year, by an UCL Cross-Disciplinary Training Fellowship in Social and Medical Anthropology. My work on missionaries has also resulted in articles on missionary humanitarianism, gender identities, and ‘justice’ in Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, South African Historical Journal and Cultural and Social History.

Deaf Connections: a social and cultural history of deafness, c. 1800-1914.

This project analysed 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 looked 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 included 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.

My 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, I ask: 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?

Research Supervision

I welcome students interested in working on the history of the British Empire; the histories of race, gender, and disability; missionary history; and the histories of nineteenth-century India, southern Africa and Britain.

Current students:

  • Sabine Hanke - Bodies, Beasts, and the Others. Empire in the German and British Circus, 1890-1945.
  • David Holland (second supervisor) - Natives and Newcomers, Marriage and Belonging - South Asian migration, settlement and working-class tolerance in the Sheffield area during the early twentieth century.

All current students by supervisor | PhD study in History


Full list of Publications


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

cleall missionary CoverThrough their copious published writings, missionaries conveyed their experiences and anxieties about people and cultures they encountered in a much-consumed strand of colonial discourse, that allowed the British public to imagine the remote countries they inhabited. Using research that draws on these writings from missionaries in southern Africa and India, Missionary Discourses of Difference is organised into three important themes of imperial and postcolonial scholarship and major missionary concern: family, sickness and violence. Each thematic section considers both how missionaries represented race, religion, gender and culture and how their thinking was shaped by anxieties about their own experiences. This two-pronged approach allows for a sustained interrogation of the interplay between self and other in missionary writing and probes the limits of inclusion beneath the missionary commitment to universalism.


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

‘From Divine Judgement to Colonial Courts’ explores the concept of ‘justice’ in missionary writings. I argue that ‘justice’ was a word with which many missionaries both identified and used to connect to like-minded communities of opinion often writing of themselves as ‘friends of justice, humanity and religion’, or the protectors of ‘kindness and justice’, and the need to bring to India ‘truth and justice’ and ‘peace, justice and humanity’. As such, they constructed themselves locked in battle with the numerous forces of injustice in British India. They railed against the ‘injustice’ ‘inflicted’ upon Hindu widows, child-brides and would-be converts by ‘traditional’, indigenous, practices. But they also wrote of ‘the imperfect administration of justice’ as practiced by the British in India, condemning both the civil and criminal courts as ‘sinks of iniquity’ where ‘justice is bought and sold like any other marketable commodity’, and repeatedly drawing attention to the failure of the imperial state to protect its Indian subjects.

‘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.

‘Jane Groom and the Deaf Colonists’ (History Workshop Journal, 2016) explores an emigration scheme envisioned by Jane Groom, a deaf woman, whereby deaf working-class people from the East End of London would be relocated to Manitoba. During the 1880s and 1890s about fifty families emigrated under Groom’s auspices. This article achieves three aims. Firstly, recovering the life of Jane Groom enables us to think about disabled activism and agency in a global arena: her activities were widely discussed both in the British Empire and in the US, and she undertook them as a disabled person because, not in spite, of her disability. Jane Groom’s life is an example of advocacy and activism in a period when we have few details about disabled figures, female ones still less. It also reveals a thriving deaf community which merits attention as a distinct social group. Secondly, her life allows us to think about the way in which disability connected with wider concerns: with, for example, the philanthropic milieu in late Victorian London, nineteenth-century anxieties about the body, and issues of emigration and settlement. Thirdly, it enables us to think about the relationships between different kinds of colonizing practice within the British Empire, in particular the part that disabled people played as proponents, as well as victims, of colonising practices.

‘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.

This article argues that, despite strong metaphorical ties between deafness and the inability to connect, nineteenth-century deaf networks provide an excellent example of how ideas and identities circulated through transnational and transcolonial networks. Educational institutions facilitated the spread of signing. Deaf pedagogies were developed and contested across multiple sites. Ideologies of ableism (the privileging of the young non-disabled body) intersected with changing attitudes towards race. And embodied knowledges of deafness circulated as deaf individuals moved around the globe and formed transnational communities. Tracing deaf connections also enables us to think about the extent to which colonial networks intersected with networks in the US and continental Europe.

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

This article explores the conflations and connections that postcolonial and disability scholars have drawn between ‘race’, ‘colonialism’ and ‘disability’ from a historical perspective. By looking at the connections drawn between ‘race’ and ‘disability’ in the context of nineteenth-century imperial Britain, I hope to probe beyond them to examine the origins and implications of their interplay. I do so by focusing on ideas about deafness, an impairment radically reconfigured in the colonial period, and inflected with concerns about degeneration, belonging, heredity and difference. Disability, I argue, not only operated as an additional ‘category of difference’ alongside ‘race’ as a way of categorising and subjugating the various ‘others’ of Empire, but intersected with it. The ‘colonisation’ of disabled people in Britain and the ‘racial other’ by the British were not simply simultaneous processes or even analogous ones, but were part and parcel of the same cultural and discursive system. The colonising context of the nineteenth century, a period when British political, economic and cultural expansion over areas of South Asia, Australasia and Africa increased markedly, structured the way in which all forms of difference were recognised and expressed, including the difference of deafness. So too did the shifts in the raced and gendered thinking that accompanied it, as new forms of knowledge were developed to justify, explain and contest Britain's global position and new languages were developed through which to articulate otherness. Such developments reconfigured the meaning of disability. Disability was, in effect, ‘orientalised’. ‘Race’ I argue was formative in shaping what we have come to understand as ‘disability’ and vice versa; they were related fantasies of difference.

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

This article traces the way in which the language of displacement and silence were used in nineteenth-century discussions of deafness and connects this tendency to the marginalised place deaf experience occupies historically. Throughout the nineteenth century, a period which saw the consolidation of ‘the deaf and dumb’ as a social category, the word ‘forgetting’ crept into numerous discussions of deafness by both deaf and hearing commentators. Some, such as the educationalist Alexander Graeme Bell, were overt in their desire to forget deafness, demanding disability was ‘bred out’ and deaf culture condemned to the forgotten past. Others used the term ambivalently and sometimes metaphorically discussing the deaf as ‘forgotten’ by society, and ‘children of silence’. Some even pleaded that people who were deaf were not forgotten. But, though varied, the use of the imagery of forgetting and silence to evoke deafness is recurrent, and may, therefore, be seen to reveal something about how deaf experience can be approached as a displacement where deafness was spatially and imaginatively marginalised. I argue that one of the consequences of the conceptual framing of deafness through the language of forgetting was actively to silence deafness and to neutralise the idea that disability should be marginal and could be forgotten.

“Deaf to the Word”: Gender, Deafness and Protestantism in Nineteenth-Century Britain and Ireland’, Gender and History, Volume 25: Issue 3, November 2013, pp. 590-603.

In this article, I argue that gender and religion helped to frame this reconfiguration of attitudes towards disability. Gender was an important framework through which disability was filtered; disability is perceived to trouble the performance of independence, beauty, sexuality, parenthood and identity. In nineteenth-century Britain, religious discourses, highly influential in articulating otherness, helped make disability a marked category and ensure that people with disability were read through a heightened moral framework.

With Laura Ishiguro and Emily Manktelow, ‘Imperial Relations: Families in the British Empire', Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History, 14:1, Spring 2013.

This introductory article, co-written with Laura Ishiguro and Emily Manktelow, explores the growing scholarship that suggests family and empire were entangled in a wide range of ways. Familial connections could be vital elements in networks of political patronage and power, while the family also worked as a site of economic strategy and capital accumulation; colonial employment and enterprise, for example, often supported the flagging fortunes of metropolitan relatives. Ideas about marriage, gender, sexuality, childrearing and domesticity both shaped and were shaped by configurations of imperial power and identity, while family communication also helped to produce personal forms of colonial knowledge for those who remained in the metropole. It argues that, in these ways, the British Empire became a “family affair” or an “intimate project”; in ideal and practice, imagination and experience, duty and emotion, blood and metaphor, family constituted key sinews of empire.

'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, 601-619.

This article explores the controversy around the suppression of the Langeberg Rebellion and subsequent punitive indenture of the ‘Bechuana rebels’, a serious episode of colonial violence which, like many others, has been forgotten. In recovering this episode, I argue that such controversies were crisis points in wider attitudes towards empire and colonial relationships. The article focuses on what the debate reveals about the articulation of four imperial ‘principles’ that those challenging the punishment argued had been undermined: ‘freedom’, ‘protection’, ‘civilisation’ and ‘justice’. By comparing reactions in Britain and southern Africa, I demonstrate that these values, evoked as if universally understood, were configured in ways that spoke to the specificities of different colonial sites and that their meanings differed, even within what may be described as ‘humanitarian’ networks, across places of Empire. I argue that violent episodes, such as the Bechuanaland controversy, created ruptures that exposed these discrepancies and contradictions.

With Feminist Fightback Collective, 'The Cuts are a Feminist Issue', Soundings, 49, Autumn 2011.

This article, co-written with Feminist Fightback Collective, explores the politics of care and social reproduction. It uses activist and academic approaches together to explore the gendered nature of the current cuts to public spending.

With History of Feminism Collective, 'Introduction', Women: a Cultural Review on 'Rethinking the History of Feminism', 21:3, Autumn 2010, 247-250.

This article, co-written with the History of Feminism Collective, reflects on the History and the Historiography of Feminism as the Women’s Liberation Movement celebrates its 40th Anniversary.

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

This article explores the representation of missionary masculinities in London Missionary Society (LMS) periodicals. Despite the increasing numbers of single female missionaries sent by the LMS to the ‘East’ during the nineteenth century, the southern African mission field remained, for the most part, resolutely male. Yet, to date, there has been little consideration of the male missionary as a gendered subject. This paper seeks to explore how missionaries negotiated masculine identities within southern Africa, and how images of missionary masculinity were then conveyed to the metropolitan British public through the medium of the missionary periodical. The article will focus on war as both an archetypal arena for the performance of masculinity, and as a key characteristic of nineteenth-century southern Africa, where conflicts, both indigenous and colonial, were frequent and long-lasting.


‘Emancipation, Slave-Ownership and the Remaking of the British Imperial World’, Report Back, History Workshop Journal , 75, Spring 2013.

'"Reconfiguring the British" Seminars and Commemoration of the Bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade', Report Back, History Workshop Journal, 64, Autumn 2007, 456-459.

Special Issues

With Laura Ishiguro and Emily Manktelow, ‘Imperial Relations: Families in the British Empire’, Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History, 14:1, Spring 2013.

This special issue examines the place of “relations” in colonial life, interrogating their forms, meanings and significance in a range of contexts across the British Empire from the late eighteenth century to the present. We are concerned with exploring both “family” and “empire” as contested categories, with particular attention to rethinking the configurations of “blood, contract, and intimacy” that might be seen as constituting imperial families. To this end, the articles consider a diverse range of ways in which family—broadly defined—operated as a key site of imperial processes, a social and economic unit at the heart of colonial life, and a building block for imperial relationships and identities. Individually and collectively, these articles push the scholarship on imperial family in new directions, questioning the conceptual boundaries of family and rethinking its connections to empire.

Guest Editor (with History of Feminism Collective) of a special issue of Women: a Cultural Review on 'Rethinking the History of Feminism', 21:3, Autumn 2010.

The articles here contribute to a newly emerging historical perspective on the rise of women’s, gender and feminist history in the wake of the Women’s Liberation Movement in the 1970s and 1980s. The volume seeks new insights into the history of feminism as a political, social, cultural and intellectual movement, and the past and present writing of feminist historiography.



Historians and History, HST202 (Level 2 module)

Historians and History, HST202

This module introduces students to some of the most influential and significant developments which have shaped the ways in which historians think about and write about the past. Since History became professionalised as a specific academic discipline in the nineteenth century, historians have adopted a variety of different approaches to their studies. For some, ideas about the past have been shaped by political beliefs, by the application of political ideologies and philosophies, and by the desire to produce a more inclusive version of history, focusing on the experience of the working classes, women, and groups marginalised in established accounts. Others have been influenced by different methods of research, and the opportunities offered by particular types of source material to tell different stories about the past. Others still have been inspired by intellectual theories and by borrowings from other disciplines, like literary studies and anthropology, to explore new ways of thinking about history. The module allows students to think more about the different ways in which we can study History, and to engage with the work of a number of historians whose influence can still be felt today.

It aims to equip students with the necessary background to develop a more critical approach to the secondary literature which they encounter throughout their degree course and to build bridges between the various modules they are studying at levels 2 and 3.

Module Leader

Contested Visions: Imagining an Empire in mid-nineteenth century Britain, HST3127/3128 (Level 3 optional module)

Contested Visions: Imagining an Empire in mid-nineteenth century Britain, HST3127/3128

British expansion did not result from a single, coherent imperial strategy, or a fit of ‘absence of mind’; it developed from specific cross-cultural encounters and competing colonial visions. Some saw the Empire as a place of adventure, others an opportunity for Christianisation, still others as a ‘New World’ in which to build a Greater Britain. These visions were always contested and challenged both overseas and in Britain. This module explores these contested visions and the impact of empire at home. It is structured around different ‘visions of empire’ including those of humanitarians; missionaries; settlers; travellers; scientists and the British public.

Cultural Encounters, HST3302 (Level 3 comparative module)

Cultural Encounters, HST3302

This module considers cultural encounters in medieval, early modern and modern societies within the overall framework of Europe´s expansion into what contemporaries considered new worlds. As such, it is concerned with the mechanics of and reflections upon cultural encounters between disparate subjects including missionaries, soldiers, administrators, settlers, slaves, capitalists, and indigenous peoples. It sets out to engage with the notion of cultural interaction and the view that rather than dominant cultures supplanting the subaltern the literature on cultural encounters reveals a more nuanced process of exchange and mediation with agency and vulnerability on both sides.

This unit aims to allow students to engage with the main themes arising from the study of cultural encounters in the medieval, early modern, and modern worlds and to foster their ability and confidence in formulating analyses of a topic covering a significant period of time, approached in a comparative way, and studied at an advanced level.

Work Placement, HST681 (Postgraduate module)

Work Placement, HST681

This module aims to give you an insight into the day to day workings of a museum, school or research institute, in order to develop history-specific vocational skills and promote reflection on the issues involved in disseminating history outside academia. The module provides a vocational component to the Department of History postgraduate portfolio, and may be of particular interest to those MA students not planning to pursue a PhD after their studies. You will choose a placement from those offered at the start of the academic year and then negotiate a role within that placement relevant to their area of study. Following a placement of approximately 100 hours with an employer an essay will then be completed by you reflecting on the work you undertook. Seminars and tutorials before and after the placement will allow students to compare and contrast their experiences.

Debating Cultural Imperialism in the Nineteenth-Century British Empire, HST6053 (Postgraduate module)

Debating Cultural Imperialism in the Nineteenth-Century British Empire, HST6053

The nineteenth-century British Empire was ruled through a complex colonial bureaucracy, violent conquest, and exploitative economic relationships. But, arguably the most controversial element of British colonialism was its cultural projects. Missionaries, humanitarians, educationalists and doctors all had their own aspirations for indigenous people and came bearing ‘western’ and ostensibly very ‘different’ ways of understanding the mind and the body. This course will introduce you to debates around cultural imperialism in the nineteenth-century British Empire. The seminars will explore the texts and issues around specific areas of ‘cultural’ intervention: religion; indigenous traditions; the position of women; and western biomedicine.

Public Engagement

Public Engagement

I am committed to working with community groups to unravel new perspectives on the past.

I have recently been working with Sheffield Voices, a self-advocacy group for adults with learning disabilities, to make a film about the history of learning disabilities in Sheffield. You can watch the film we made here.

I have been an Early Career Researcher on the University of Sheffield’s AHRC-funded Researching Community Heritage Team. As part of this project, I worked as a consultant historian on a project on 'Indian Heritage in the Peak District' led by Hindu Samaj and funded by the All Our Stories National Lottery Fund to unravel the connections between India and the Peak District National Park.

In The Media

I am a consultant historian on a project on 'Indian Heritage in the Peak District' lead by Hindu Samaj and funded by the All Our Stories National Lottery Fund.

Please see the video below of a talk I gave at a Sheffield Hindu Samaj workshop entitled Threads of Connection: A workshop of the history of cotton, India and the Peak District National Park. Please have a look at Sheffield Hindu Samaj's Youtube channel to see other talks I have given.

The 'Indian Heritage in the Peak District' project has garnered some media interest and coverage. In particular by Martin Wainwright (Northern Editor) of the Guardian.

I also contribute to the blogs including the department's History Matters blog and the Colonial Families Research Network blog.

Administrative Duties

Current Administrative Duties

Senior Tutor (2016-2017)

Member of Teaching and Learning Committee (2016-2017)

Level One Tutor (2014-2016)