Research to explore Catholic role in British colonization across the Atlantic

A new research project at Saint Mary’s aims to fill a major gap in knowledge relating to transatlantic migration, Catholic history and British imperialism going back 250 years.


“The period we’re looking at was a period of intense anti-Catholicism,” says Dr. S. Karly Kehoe, who holds the Canada Research Chair (CRC) in Atlantic Canada Communities. “It’s not dissimilar to what’s happening in different countries in the West now, with anxiety and animosity towards specific groups.”

Titled ‘A Catholic Atlantic? Minority Agency in the British World, 1763-1860’, the project received a significant Insight Development Grant from the federal government, announced July 17 by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC).

“It’s going to help build research capacity with the CRC, and make it more international by bringing in Irish, Scottish and Caribbean dimensions,” says Kehoe, whose project partner is Dr. Ciaran O’Neill, Ussher Assistant Professor in Nineteenth-Century History at Trinity College Dublin.

Broad literature exists on Catholic missions to Asia and Africa in the modern period, but not much research has been done on Catholic migration in the British Atlantic context. Kehoe hopes to shed new light on the transnational character of Catholic agency in the British world, and show that links beyond just trade and migration existed between northeastern British North America and the Caribbean.

Trinidad will be a major area of focus, as it was a predominantly Catholic island with large free people of colour and slave populations that identified as Catholics. There is an Italian component as well – two collaborators in Rome will assist in working with the Vatican’s archives and other Catholic Church history sources.

The project will be a great learning opportunity for several student research assistants at SMU, who will work directly with students in Dublin.

“We’re really committed to sharing the research, so we’ll be creating blogs and podcasts,” says Kehoe. “That’s where students will really take a lead on preparing little research vignettes, interesting snippets we find that people might want to know about.”

The two-year project will include public lectures next fall at a Halifax symposium and a Dublin workshop. Kehoe will also connect this work with high school students in Mabou, Cape Breton, through the SMU Emerging Researchers Program she leads with Dr. Alexander MacLeod.

Paying more attention to minority groups in the past British Empire can help in better addressing migrant integration in today’s world, she says.

“Migration is constant. I think all academics who engage with it have a responsibility to connect what they’re doing with what’s going on now, to broaden the conversation and get people thinking about things in different ways.”

Kehoe is a strong advocate for displaced, refugee and at-risk academics, through her work with the Global Young Academy. She recently co-edited a new book, Responsibility for Refugee and Migrant Integration, which launched in April in Munich. Also in April, she was the 2019 Spring Strickland Visiting Scholar at Middle Tennessee State University.

The Canada Research Chair in Atlantic Canada Communities program at Saint Mary’s aims to raise awareness about the complex historical experience of Atlantic Canada as a way of inspiring new ideas about global networking, settler colonialism, economic assertiveness and the agency of its people and communities.