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David Washbrook (25 April 1948 - 24 January 2021)

The History Department is saddened to announce the passing of David Washbrook.

 

David was admired and respected by every one of his colleagues. In part, this was due to his generous personality. He was warm and open with everyone in the Department. I always felt I could turn to him as a friend. We actually agree to make a trip together to South India. Sadly it never came off, due to timing difficulties.

David was also respected for his wide ranging knowledge and original approach to History. Other colleagues are better qualified to speak of his contribution to Indian history. I recall him especially for his support when I set out to reconstruct the Historiography course in the late 1980s. Students were voting with their feet against our old fashioned version – the history of historical writing. The Department was on the point of axeing Historiography altogether, as so many other History Departments had already done.

I thought this would be a disastrous move. University History teaching had come under attack from Sir Keith Joseph, as Minister of Education, who demanded that we teach an authoritative narrative of Britain’s past.

The issue came up at a joint meeting of the Department with Midlands History teachers and HM Inspectors of Schools. I was appalled at our inability to put up an agreed defence of what we did. Some insisted that historical method produced ‘truth’. Others, like me, thought its results relativistic. But we floundered about most unphilosophically. And the HMIs present urged us to get it straightend out.

It seemed to me that Historiography had to tackle the question of ‘truth’, but I had very little idea how to go about it. It was conversations with David that made me see the philosophical issues, mainly around the truth claims for language which, as David pointed out, the ‘post-modernists’ were then challenging with a radical scepticism.

David introduced me to the writings of Foucault, Derrida and the others and gave me one to one tutorials as I thought my way through their (to me) very unfamiliar view of ‘scientific thruth’.

That became the window of the course that we launched as the new Historiography. Not everyone welcomed it. Some student hated it; some put up with it; but, astonishing to tell, some positively loved it. External examiners (again not all, but at least half) complimented us on continuing to deliver a course which could wash its face.

I played my part as Director of the course and other colleagues, notably James Hinton, were very supportive. But David was in a real sense its only begetter.

I really missed him when he left the Department. He was the gift that kept on giving from his truly original mind.

 

Fred Reid, January 2021

 

David was our first appointment in the field of Asian history, and his expertise laid the foundations of Warwick's strength as a centre of Indian and later also Chinese history. The financial crisis that led to a freeze in appointments meant that for years he carried the torch alone. I remember his cheerfully cynical take on the world, his collegiality, and his independent spirit. He had a wonderfully incisive mind. I remember Robin Clifton marveling at David's ability to penetrate straight to the heart of a complex new work, master its key arguments, and identify strengths and weaknesses. David loved to share his passionate interest in India and its history, and had some memorable anecdotes about his academic travels. On one occasion, flying back from the US, he glanced out of the window to see that an engine was on fire. There was a hasty return to base. On another, in India, he was desperately trying to reach the airport in time to catch his flight, only to be struck in a massive traffic jam caused by elephants blocking the road.

I last saw David, after a gap of many years, at Maxine's retirement event. He was in good spirits and good form. He had many plans for the years ahead, and it is tragic that they can never be fulfilled. But he will be long remembered as a popular and much admired colleague, and for his major contributions to the field of Indian history.'

Bernard Capp, January 2021

 

I joined the History Department in 1988 and so was a colleague of David for only 5 years. But I have to say that he made a profound impact on me as an early career historian. Firstly for his generosity and kindness for someone new to the profession. He really understood what it might be like for a young, female historian to be joining a department of established male scholars and was unbelievably generous to me. He was instrumental in my early days in the Department in formulating really exciting curricula for both the new historiography module and what would become Making of the Modern World. What I always appreciated about David, was his generosity in scholarship. In those days, in the late 1980s, the linguistic turn and postcolonialism were in their early periods of gestation. Yet David, had a forensic analysis and was so widely read. He could summarise complex theories at a flick of his finger. But he was non-judgmental. He really appreciated scholarship, even if he was dismissive of blind adherence to theory. I remember David as a fragment of a lost gone era. The exchanges in our ‘history common room’, really the post room with the photocopier, but we could grab a quick coffee. The conversations in the corridor, particularly post the weekly Thursday staff meetings after which we all had core module teaching. Those shared weekly experiences bonded us in a way it is impossible to replicate now in our busy lives. But most of all, I remember his spontaneous compassion and understanding for me, as the first female member of the department, and the only appointment since 1976. David reached out to me and I will always appreciate that. I was really feeling my way when he was a colleague but truly acknowledged his scholarship once he had left. Such a brilliant scholar. But perhaps more importantly, such a fantastic colleague and mentor.

Sarah Richardson, January 2021

On learning the sad news of David’s death our first thoughts are with Angela, their daughters Sarah and Elizabeth and their son Daniel. Elaine and I have known them since we became neighbours in Earlsdon after David joined the Department in 1974 and we count them amongst our oldest friends. We had arrived just two years when I was recruited by Alistair Hennessy and John Rex to teach modern Italian history and to design and launch a new joint degree in History & Sociology. This outreach to the social sciences was very much the flavour of the decade, and as well as putting India and Asia on the Department’s map David’s appointment shortly after was designed to strengthen the opening to the social sciences.

We could not have found a better qualified player. An invaluable support for me when in partnership with Simon Frith we were setting up the new degree with Sociology, David was also a major contributor to the established joint degree with Politics. This was an older and contentious venture that gave rise to a much anticipated annual gladiatorial contest of epic proportions when the two Departments convened as an exam board. This was a setting in which David soon proved to be a star performer, cutting down our opponents’ contentions with fearsome forensic focus matched by a total absence of malice. Indeed, the wit of his sallies and the distinctive chuckle of intellectual triumph with which they concluded invariably served to lower temperatures and restore civil discourse.

At the time we often joked that the timing of our arrivals in the Department was like joining the French Revolution around Thermidor, but even though we had not stood with our colleagues and Madame Defarge at the foot of the guillotine during the heady days of 1968 these were good times to be a young historian. E. P. Thompson was no longer at the Centre for Social History, but the spirit of ‘Warwick Inc’ was very much alive and the Department was full of energy and new ideas. As was the case everywhere at the time, the focus of our energies was the under-graduate curriculum and teaching, with graduate studies playing only a marginal role, not least because of an agreed division of labour with the Centre for Social History. But thanks in no small part to the innovative ideas of its founder, John Hale, we had an outstandingly good degree course with its distinctive US semester exchanges and the Venice term that attracted excellent students.

We shared a strong commitment to developing this innovative curriculum, and in this David’s experience and insights proved particularly valuable. He was a fine representative of what turned out to be a remarkably creative generation of Cambridge history graduates whose work would play a critical role in bringing new approaches to a range of different historiographies, especially in reshaping the teaching and writing of history in the UK around the principles and perspectives of world history. Especially when it came to navigating the historiographical implications of the post-modernist turns in the 1980s, David’s own work on India, his engagement with post-colonial studies and the wider debates that were reshaping the understandings of empire and its historiography assured him a central role in the debates that dominated the intellectual life of the Department.

But our contacts were not limited to matters academical, nor to the Arts Building. One frequent port of call was the bar of what was then the Sports Centre, where colleagues would meet to discuss the greater and lesser issues of the day before heading for home. Virtually all faculty at that time lived locally, and as well a frequent gatherings in Earlsdon David often invited me to join him for Cambridge events, where I had the opportunity to meet the colourful fellowship of Trinity historians, among them many of his mentors.

After I left Warwick for Connecticut in 1992 our contacts became less frequent. During summer visits to the UK we kept in touch when David and Angela first moved to Oxford, but after David began teaching in Cambridge those contacts were lost and it was only when I retired four years ago and moved back to Shropshire that we had the opportunity to renew our friendship and contacts. Little did we know that our time was limited, but fortunately we managed to get together a number of times, starting appropriately with a visit to Robert Clive’s collection of plundered Indian artworks at nearby Powis Castle. As well as talk of our time together at Warwick and of our old friends and colleagues, we devoted serious attention to pleasures of the table and our shared enthusiasm for horse racing. Indeed, the last time we stayed with David and Angela in Headington was in April 2019 when we watched the Grand National together (without finding the winner!). Plans for further meetings last year were cut off by the pandemic, so our last sight of David was at dinner in Oxford at the house of another Warwick colleague and close friend, Maxine Berg.

As a scholar, David was an accomplished and innovative historian whose work contributed to reshaping contemporary understanding of Britain’s and India’s imperial past. He was also a consummate and indefatigable conversationalist who relished turning accepted truths on their head. Without ever taking himself too seriously, he delighted in demonstrating the infallible logic of a counter-intuitive conclusion, always signing off with that endearing triumphant chuckle. Thinking back on the years of our friendship, David will always be alive for me in the memory of those countless unfinished conversations.

John Davis (1972-1993,Warwick/1993-2016 Connecticut), February 2021

David Washbrook in 2009