The World History Center is proud to announce that our Digital Atlas Design Internship student Lawson Pace recently won the History Department’s William Stanton Prize for the best honors thesis in History written in the 2020-2021 academic year. Lawson graduated this semester and also took the Digital Atlas Design Internship this past spring semester. We took some time to interview Lawson about his interests in history, his research, and his project.
What drove you to study history?
My decision to pursue history came down to two things: first, my abiding love for stories of all kinds; and second, a deep fascination with continuity and change in the world over time. I think that for young people, especially, the people and events of the past feel like they only ever existed in books and photographs (and were certainly never real like us). When I visit sites like battlefields and historic houses, I am often overwhelmed by a sense of "thinness" between past and present; that is, the sudden recognition that not only did real people just like me live and die in those places long before I was born, but that their decisions and the transformations that took place during their lives shaped my current experiences (as the great transformations of the modern world will affect the experiences of future generations). I find historical research to be rewarding in its own right, but it also frequently has something to tell us about the transformations of the present moment.
Can you tell us a little about your thesis project?
My thesis work centers around the ways that British imperial politicians and bureaucrats' use of the category of "piracy" affected geopolitics and sovereignty in the Persian Gulf region in the decades between the Ottoman invasion of Arabia in 1871 and the beginning of the First World War. I argue that the British anti-piracy mission was core to the development of their imperial power in the Gulf. An individual or group's status as pirate or non-pirate was determined by their attitude and behavior towards British efforts to build a protected imperial community in the Gulf that was "safe for trade", and participation in this community likewise required participation in the suppression of "piracy." Powers like the Ottoman Empire that could or would not control what the British perceived as piracy were marginalized. The development of this political community elevated some rulers and relegated others to the dustbin of history, and so the modern political configuration of the Gulf is very much related to British attitudes towards piracy during this uncertain period in the Gulf when British attempts at establishing hegemonic influence over the Gulf were complicated by Ottoman ambitions.
What inspired you to take the Digital Atlas Design Internship?
My thesis advisor, Dr. James Pickett, encouraged me to pursue the Digital Atlas Internship because it was a very positive experience for his previous students. I wanted an opportunity to gain some technical skills and experience while producing a discrete piece of content that I could use to showcase those skills alongside my writing and research abilities.
Can you tell us a little bit about your Atlas project?
[note, follow this link to fully browse Lawson’s project]
For my Atlas Project, I mapped vectors of British influence in the Persian Gulf, Iraq, and southern Persia from 1822 to 1914. I focused on mapping the expanding network of British diplomatic officials centered in the port of Bushire and formal and informal protection relationships with local rulers. Both diplomatic networks and treaty relationships were used to project British political power in an inexpensive way in territory that was not under direct British rule. My maps visualize the increase over time in British influence in the Gulf during the long nineteenth century, and so are complementary to my thesis work.
How did the Digital Atlas Design Internship help you with your thesis project?
Working on my Atlas Project at the same time as my thesis gave me an opportunity to expand on ideas that I could not explore fully in my thesis and I was actually able to use some of the research I did for the internship in the thesis. It also encouraged me to think spatially about my work.
Is there anything else you want to share with us?
To those who are considering taking the Digital Atlas Internship or writing a senior thesis, I would encourage them to take the plunge. Both can be very difficult (especially when undertaken at the same time), but both can also be deeply rewarding. It is so important in college to go beyond simply completing assignments and instead create something that you can carry with you beyond graduation.
Thank you and congratulations again to Lawson! Be sure to browse all 50 of our completed Digital Atlas Design Internship projects if you want to see more cutting-edge spatial historical research conducted by the undergraduates at the University of Pittsburgh. If you are an interested student or advisor, you can learn more about the internship and how to register for it here.