Using Social Biography to Study 18th-century World Historical Processes in William Booth’s World

Dr. Bonnie Huskins is currently working on a monograph which profiles an 18th-century British Royal Engineer named William Booth.[i] Born in London in 1747, William Booth was commissioned as an ensign in the Corps of Engineers in 1771, and from there was posted to Gibraltar (1779-83), to Halifax Nova Scotia (August 1785-October 1786), to Shelburne Nova Scotia (1786-89), and to Jersey in the Channel Islands (1799-1800). Traditional biographies tend to focus on personal details and local particularities, but : Dr. Bonnie Huskins will be using the framework of “social biography,” a social history approach to world history which traces the connections between the “profoundly local and individual” and the “global and world historical.”

By viewing world developments through the eyes of individual human agents such as Booth, social biographies also have the potential to challenge accepted generalizations in world history, and thus help us to “better appreciate the limits as well as the power of world historical processes.”[ii]  Moreover, this monograph situates itself squarely within the paradigm of the “new world history,” which presents “local histories in a global context and gives and overview of world events as seen through the eyes of ordinary people.”[iii] While William Booth was an ordinary person, he was also somewhat exceptional in the sense that he has left behind traces of himself in the form of military and genealogical records, correspondences and memos, paintings and sketches, and most notably two journals which he kept while posted to Shelburne and Jersey.

In 2008 the Shelburne County Archives and Genealogical Society published a transcribed and annotated version of Booth’s Shelburne journal.[iv] Anecdotes from this journal have appeared in histories of Shelburne and in accounts of the American Revolutionary War loyalists’ experiences in Nova Scotia.[v] There is also a three-page biographical overview of Booth written by archivist Barry Cahill for the published version of the journal. However, there is currently no book-length work on Booth’s life or career.

In order to highlight the world historical processes embedded within William Booth’s life and career, I propose breaking this social biography into four sections:  war, the slave trade, mercantile trade, and social support networks. .

[i]  The corps were not gazetted as “Royal” until 1787.

[ii] Edmund Burke III, “How to Write a Social Biography,”

[iii] Mary Jo Maynes and Ann Waltner, The Family: A World History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), viii.

[iv] Eleanor Robertson Smith ed., Remarks and Rough Memorandums: Captain William Booth, Corps of Royal Engineers, Shelburne, Nova Scotia, 1787, 1789 (Shelburne: Shelburne County Archives & Genealogical Society, 2008).

[v] See Marion Robertson, King’s Bounty: A History of Early Shelburne Nova Scotia (Halifax: Nova Scotia Museum, 1983); Neil MacKinnon, This Unfriendly Soil: The Loyalist Experience in Nova Scotia, 1783-1791 (Kingston & Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1986);  Stephen Kimber, Loyalists and Layabouts: The Rapid Rise and Faster Fall of Shelburne, Nova Scotia, 1783-1792 (Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 2008).


Bonnie Huskins