Department of History

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Onni Gust

Associate Professor, Faculty of Arts



I am a cultural and intellectual historian of the British Empire in the 'long' eighteenth century (c. 1730-1830). My research asks what it means to be human and how the boundaries of the human and non-human animal were constructed in the 18th century. In particular, I look at the relationship between European colonial expansion, ideas of a male/female sex binary, and the meaning of the human.

I hold a PhD from University College London and a MA in Asian and African History from the School of Oriental and African Studies. I have taught History and Gender Studies at University College London, the London School of Economics, Amherst College, Smith College, the University of Massachusetts, and the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign where I was a Mellon post-doctoral fellow at the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities.

In addition to academic teaching and researching, I have worked with artists, school teachers, and youth groups to think creatively about the relationship between history and identity. Between 2017 and 2018 I worked with Dr Michael McMillan, who looked at the relationship between trauma and belonging as Leverhulme Artist in Residence. I blog on the history of colonialism and sexuality at Notches: (re)marks on the history of sexuality. and History Workshop Online and have written on pedagogy in Higher Education, including for the Guardian Higher Education Network.

Expertise Summary

I am a historian of the British Empire in the long eighteenth century (c.1730-1830), with a particular focus on circuits of knowledge across colonial sites and the meaning of 'sex'. I situate my work within transgender studies, looking at how we think about, research, and write transgender history in the context of global climate catastrophe.

My current book project, 'The Forger, the Parrot and the Truth about Sex: material authenticity and the human in the Enlightenment' looks at the changing meaning of bodily authenticity in eighteenth-century British imperial thought and culture.

My book, Unhomely Empire: whiteness and belonging, c.1769-1830 examined ideas of belonging and whiteness in elite, British-imperial discourse, focusing particularly on writers closely affiliated with the Scottish Enlightenment. By reading across genres, including published works of philosophy and history, as well as novels and poetry, and unpublished letters and diaries, I showed how a discourse of belonging changed in relationship to British imperial expansion.

Teaching Summary

My special subject, "Imperial Eyes: Race, Gender and Empire in Enlightenment Thought" explores the role of empire and ideas of race and gender in the eighteenth-century enlightenment, challenging the… read more

Research Summary

Over the last five years, transgender rights have been the subject of increasingly vehement debate in media and policy in Britain, as well as in other parts of the world. This debate tends to assume… read more

Selected Publications

  • ONNI GUST, 2018. 'The perilous territory of not belonging': exile and empire in Sir James Mackintosh's letters from Bombay, c.1804-1811 History Workshop Journal. 86, (In Press.)
  • ONNI GUST, 2017. Mobility, gender and empire in Maria Graham's Journal of a Residence in India (1812) Gender and History. 29(2), 273-291
  • ONNI GUST, 2017. What is Radical History Now? History Workshop Journal. 83(1), 230-240
  • Threads of Empire: rule and resistance in colonial India 2017. At: Weston Gallery, University of Nottingham01/01/1900 00:00:00-01/01/1900 00:00:00.

I welcome applications from potential students interested in researching on areas, including:

  • British imperial history in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries;
  • Colonial history, especially in relationship to India;
  • Histories of gender and sexuality, including trans and non-binary histories;
  • Histories of race, racism, and difference;
  • Histories of the body;
  • The cultural and intellectual history of the Scottish Enlightenment;
  • Histories of identity and belonging.
  • Transgender history;
  • Histories of disability;

My special subject, "Imperial Eyes: Race, Gender and Empire in Enlightenment Thought" explores the role of empire and ideas of race and gender in the eighteenth-century enlightenment, challenging the traditional idea of "the Enlightenment" as a solely European phenomenon that was orchestrated exclusively by white, male elites for the benefit of "civilization." I teach a third-year option, 'Travel writing and British imperial expansion', a second-year option, 'Rule and Resistance in Colonial India' and am developing a new second-year option, 'Unsettling the gender binary in global history, c.1750-1870' which looks at 'transgender' history from a transnational perspective.

I teach on the following BA team-taught courses:

  • Learning History
  • Roads to Modernity
  • Contemporary World
  • Doing History
  • Dissertation Module (convenor)

I also teach on the following MA courses:

  • Englishness and Identity
  • (Mis)perceptions of the Other (convenor)
  • Empire and Imperialisms
  • National Memory and Social Change in Europe.

PhD supervision

I am interested in supervising PhD students who want to look at questions of empire, race, disability, gender and sexuality in the long eighteenth century (or beyond). I particularly interested in thinking about histories of whiteness and disability and in transgender history. I encourage and support minoiritized students to apply.

Current supervision:

  • Darcie Mawby, 'Gender and identity conflicts in women's experiences of the Crimean War, c.1854-1856'.
  • Matt Carter, 'Animals and empire: popular natural history and national identity in Britain, 1780-1860'.
  • Rebecca Hickman, 'Gender nonconformity and the quest for 'recognition' in the United Kingdom from the 1970s to the present day'.

Completed PhDs:

  • David Robinson, 'Orientalism or Medionism? Comparing Imperial and European Travel writing in the creation of British and European Identity'.

Current Research

Over the last five years, transgender rights have been the subject of increasingly vehement debate in media and policy in Britain, as well as in other parts of the world. This debate tends to assume that issues of gender non-conformity are modern, Western issues, despite evidence for the historical existence of complex, non-binary gender expressions in non-Western societies. My future research aims to complicate the current parameters and assumptions of the debate around transgender rights by examining the relationship between colonialism and the two-sex binary during the era of Enlightenment and European imperial expansion. My research asks the following questions:

1) What role did non-European ideas and practices around bodily difference play in European constructions of 'sex' and gender?

2) How did European-imperial encounters with peoples whose bodies and practices elided the male/female binary inform European ideas of 'sex'?

3) In what ways did ideas of 'race' and 'monstrosity' intersect with ideas of 'sex' in the European imperial imagination?

4) In what ways might non-European peoples actions, albeit heavily circumscribed as a result of radically unequal power relations, have impacted European representations of their bodies?

Past Research

My past research examined the discourse of 'home' and 'exile' in Enlightenment thought, and its role in British imperial expansion during the 'long' eighteenth century. European imperial expansion radically increased population mobility, as new trade routes, war, disease, and the expropriation of land and labour displaced people across the world. By the eighteenth century, millions of people were on the move, from enslaved Africans trafficked across the Atlantic, to Europeans of all ranks looking for new economic opportunities in Empire. In this context of mass movement, intellectual ideas of what it meant to feel emotional attachment to people and places - referred to here as 'belonging' - informed imperial debates and the construction of difference.

My book project, Unhomely Empire: Whiteness and Belonging c.1760-1830 (London, 2020) maps the consolidation of an elite discourse of 'home' and 'exile' through three inter-related case studies: the debate over slavery and abolition in the Caribbean; the debate over Scottish Highland emigration to North America; and, discussions over how to raise white girls in colonial India. These debates took place across different genres, including philosophy, poetry, political pamphlets, travel writing, letters and diaries. By focusing on the movement of these ideas across the published and unpublished work of a British-imperial literary network, Unhomely Empire argues that the configuration of belonging in the 'long' eighteenth century played a key role in determining who could belong to nation, civilization, and humanity.

Department of History

University of Nottingham
University Park
Nottingham, NG7 2RD

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