Dr Donna Brunero – My Story As A Maritime Historian

Dr Brunero.jpg

What drove you to specialize in history?

As an undergrad, I was really passionate about history, and it was something that I enjoyed the most out of all the subjects that I’ve studied. And that’s what really led me to want to do more in terms of studying history.

Did you consider other disciplines?

I had thought I’d be a literature major when I went to university. I was studying literature but I was also taking history classes – and I just fell in love with the subject.

I really enjoyed history modules at university level. From there, I think that’s what set me on the path to being a historian. As an undergrad, I did what was the equivalent of a summer scholarship at an interstate university, and that for me was quite an eye opener (it is like doing an Independent Study Module, but as a scholarship holder). I worked with just one professor on a project over the summer break, and that, as an undergrad, was a great experience as I had a better sense of what historians do, what they talk about. I was also exposed to different types of scholarship. So that’s what really got me interested in History. And a fellowship in Greenwich at the Maritime Museum turned me to the maritime realm and it’s been very rewarding.

Where do your research interests lie? Could you share with us your proudest moment in this journey?

My research covers the areas of maritime history and imperial history and I am most interested in exploring the intersections of the two. One of my main approaches has been through the maritime world of Asia, and to view this world via the British empire. The shaping of colonial port cities fascinates me, so too the semi-imperial worlds of the treaty ports of East Asia.

Proudest moment? That is a tough question! I’ve had some, and hope there are more to come! One was viewing the ‘An Old New World’ exhibition at the National Museum and realising that my conversations with the curators (and having a curator attend my port cities class) had been  influential in how they shaped some aspects of the exhibition.

One of the most interesting moments was (many years ago) interviewing an elderly woman who grew up in China’s treaty ports (in fact spending her first 40 years in China). She was from a British and French family, and she grew up in China because her family worked for the Chinese Maritime Customs service, and so when I interviewed her she spent the first part of the interview trying to figure out where I fit on the China coast because she said that she didn’t recognise my surname, so she had a really strong sense of their being a community among the families of the China coast.  I guess one of the things that I’ve been happiest about is that, many years later,  I’m still in contact  with her family. Her son who is now in his 80s by this point corresponds with me. He likes to check in on what I’m doing. It is really fulfilling when there’s a personal dimension to my research.

What were some difficulties you’ve faced in your research?

I think there are always difficulties when you’re undertaking research, whether it’s the nature of the research itself, whether it is having confidence to work on a particular project or particular topic, and even just grappling with the material. I recall, when I first started out, my supervisor used to just send me to the archives and say, “don’t worry, the topic will leap out at you,” and I just kept waiting for it to leap! (And really hoping I’d find an angle for my work).  So it was finding that sort of inspiration or being able to work your way in through the materials, I think, that was one of the biggest challenges.

Do you have any general advice for the current freshmen, especially for those who might still be unsure of whether to pursue History?

I would say that it’s worthwhile taking some history modules to get a sense of the different types of History being offered in NUS and realising that it is quite different from what you’ve done at school and at Junior College. And then it is good to know that the skills that you are developing as a historian, the craft of the historian, can be applied across many different contexts. I think that’s one of the things that’s exciting about history – in terms of learning to think very critically about sources and how knowledge is created. Once you start doing this, you begin to ask really interesting questions…So if you’re thinking about studying history, this might be one reason to at least consider taking some modules.

There’s this practical aspect where people are afraid to take History because of the career uncertainty in the future. What’s your opinion about that?

There is always the tension between being concerned about getting a job at the end of the day, and studying what really interests you. One thing is if you follow your passion, you’ll find a way. That’s one way of looking at it and I believe that that’s the case. You’re not trapped into just one or two particular career paths, if that makes sense, because I meet a lot of our former graduates who are working in many different sectors across government, some of them working for, say the Port Authority or as journalists. So really you can actually go on and do quite different jobs, and I think part of it is the foundation that you have in terms of the research writing and the critical thinking skills that in many ways lends itself to different areas.


What is your favourite book and who is your favourite author?

If we’re looking at academic scholarship, I really like to read the work of Robert Bickers because he gives a human dimension to life in China. His book Empire Made Me is well worth a read! And the work of Philippa Levine on gender and the British empire is really very inspiring.

If it is fiction…then I read all sorts of genres. I was reading Game of Thrones, ave been delving into Patrick O’Brien’s Master and Commander series, and have moved on to an Italian detective series for fun…

What’s is something you will put on your bucket list?

I had playing the flute on my bucket list, but I’ve already started to learn, so that one is moved off the bucket list… I think I want to travel on a container ship because I’m studying the maritime side of things. I’ve been invited a few times to go onto container ships, but I would actually like to voyage on a container ship from one port to another. I’m just curious about life at sea in these big ships…That’s on my bucket list.

Who is your favourite cartoon character?

Phineas and Ferb’s Perry the Platypus. He doesn’t speak, but I like what he gets up to. And it’s nice to see and Australian animal fighting an evil scientist.

What genres of music do you like the most?

I like jazz and classical, but I would listen to anything.

What’s your least favourite beverage?

I’m not keen on anything that’s really sweet. I am a kosong kind of person. I have to admit – I’m not a fan of bubble tea. It’s not that I haven’t tried it, but it wasn’t something I’d go out to buy.

If you could teleport to anywhere in the world, where would it be?

If I could teleport anywhere, I would probably go to Europe to some sightseeing, or to pop over to Australia to visit my family!

If you could add one word to the English dictionary, what would it be?

I do like this Singlish word – “Agaration”.

Lastly, could you describe your personal motto?

This is tough. I guess…

We’re all a work in progress. And in scholarship and in life, it’s important to take time to enjoy the journey!

Thank you so much for the interview.

*Parts of the interview have been edited for clarity

Published by hissocnus

The National University of Singapore (NUS) History Society is a student-run organization that aims to encourage an interest for history among NUS students and members of the public. Its members include all History majors and other NUS students interested in history. Regular projects that aim to engage NUS students include writing and editorial opportunities at the Society’s publication Mnemozine, career development programmes as well as welfare activities. NUS History Society is a student society under the Office of Student Affairs, National University of Singapore.

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