Interview with Research Fellow Claudia Roesch

September 8, 2023

We recently sat down with Claudia Roesch, one of our current Research Fellows to discuss her research and her experience as a Fellow at the German Historical Institute Washington.

Can you give a short overview of yourself and your academic career?

Claudia Roesch: I have been a research fellow at the German Historical Washington since 2018. I studied History and English and American Studies at Humboldt University Berlin, then received my PhD at the University of Münster in 2014. After that I stayed in Münster for two more years for a postdoc project on the history of family planning in West Germany. I moved to DC in 2018 where I finished the family planning project and conceived my new project on 19th century Utopian Engineers.

Can you tell us about your work in the archives and how it relates to your field of research?

CR: Right now, I am basically travelling throughout the US and Trinidad to find traces of “my” engineers – that is German-origin engineers who came to the US in 1830 to set up Utopian colonies – and their families through their correspondences, writings, publications, and diaries. A lot of the material I work with is scattered in different university archives in the Americas, usually when there was a scholar who showed an interest in either intentional settlements or their inventions and collected the material. But I also found material at the International Institute of Social Research in Amsterdam and many digital resources at the State Library in Berlin.

Can you briefly describe the purpose of your archive trip to Trinidad and Tobago?

CR: I was looking for primary source material on Conrad Friedrich Stollmeyer, who is one of the main actors in my book project. After his Utopian colony in Venezuela failed, he and his family stayed in Trinidad and Tobago, where he worked as a railroad manager, newspaper editor and by coincidence leased land where bitumen, the chemical used to produce asphalt, was found and he became one of the world leading asphalt importer. His son invested in cocoa plantations and his grandsons became famous cricket players, a politician and a painter.

I travelled to Trinidad because I was hoping to find some primary sources from the Stollmeyer family, especially letters that C.F. Stollmeyer had written in the 1860s. The National Archive in Trinidad did not have any of those, but they told me to check with the Alma Jordan Library at the University of West Indies and the National Library. Turned out the University of West Indies had the papers of Stollmeyer’s solicitor and I found his last will and estate there. At the National Library, I found diaries by German settlers in Trinidad, among them one of the Stollmeyer grandsons, and at the National Archives they had the newspaper that Stollmeyer senior edited.

What were some of the most memorable moments or discoveries during your trip?

CR: I showed up at the National Archives one day and the security guard told me that the archive was closed that day because they had some school groups coming. Then I begged that I was leaving the next day and he checked with the archivist who let me in anyway, so I worked next to a group of high school students. The archivists even asked me to introduce myself and explain the students why I was travelling all the way from Germany to use their archive.

The second thing, one night after work I took a boat trip and on the boat I started talking to a Trinidadian woman. She asked me what I was working on and I mentioned that I was doing research on the Stollmeyer family. She then told me, I’m in a hiking group with one Stollmeyer, maybe he can help you. Turns out he is a great grandson of my focus person and was willing to do an oral history interview with me on my last day of the trip. Now he keeps sending me material on his family history, including a feature film about his family history.

Everybody on the island was just so kind and helpful, that was really amazing and really impressive.

How do you think this experience will contribute to your work as historian?

CR: I had to learn that archival research for a 19th century project needs a completely different approach than a 20th century project. I am now learning to approach projects that don’t seem to have an obvious archival collection to itself in a more creative way, starting to look for source material in more than one place and plan many more short trips rather than one long trip at one or two archives (as I had done for my family planning project). The 19th century has a completely different archival situation than the 20th century and right now l’m like a little squirrel that gathers all her source material and saves them in a cloud folder. Within the next year I need to figure out how to write a book from that. That’s the next challenge.

Can you highlight any important findings or key insights that you gathered from your research?

CR: I guess that I have to be creative with finding archival material for my 19th century actors, especially when there are no family papers. I never thought that I would conduct oral history interviews for my 19th century project, or that I would go through the estate papers of a solicitor. I also found material in the papers of one former prime minister in Trinidad and I had such a great luck with looking through weekly newspapers that were frankly “Anzeigenblättchen” because all the businesses of my actors advertised in them.

What was also a surprising insight was how much posting in the Facebook group of the Trinidadian Virtual National History Museum helped me. I had ancestors of different German families in Trinidad reach out to me and send me material, Trinidadians who now live in Germany and a journalist who asked me to do research on German Jews who went into exile in Trinidad in 1938/39 and ended up in an internment camp during World War Two. So now I have enough material to write post-habil project on Germans in Trinidad.

National Archives, Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. Photo by Claudia Roesch