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What Is a Historical Essay: Definition, Features, and Examples

In the article, you will learn what a historical essay is, what are its features, and also get acquainted with examples of this journalism genre.

But first, let’s look at what an essay is and what types of essays exist.

What Is an Essay: Definition

An essay is a short narrative that briefly describes real events, facts, and people.

An essay is considered one of the varieties of a story that combines elements of literature and journalism.

The essay refers to the journalistic writing style, namely to its artistic and journalistic genre.

Types of Essays

There are several types of essay classification. But I propose to study the following four in more detail:

  1. Portrait or biographical essay. The portrait essay focuses on a person, and not fictional, but taken from real life. The author’s main task is to reveal the inner world of the hero, his values, and personality.
  2. Problem-solution essay. The purpose of this essay is to study some problematic situations. A problem essay can be compared to an article. As in the article, the essayist explores the problem and finds out the causes of its occurrence, further development, and solutions. The difference between an essay and an article is that in an essay the author engages in a dialogue with the reader: he shares his thoughts, explores conflict situations, tries to get to the heart of the problem, and comprehends what is happening. Such observation of the development of the conflict often causes feelings and various emotions, both in the readers of the essay and in its author.
  3. Travel essay. The travel essay is a description of the events, meetings, and incidents that happened to the author during his creative journey. 
  4. Historical essay. In such an essay, the author presents historical facts and events related to the subject of research in chronological order, analyzes historical information, and gives his interpretation. 

What Is a Historical Essay: Definition

A historical essay is a narrative in which the writer presents the evidence-based history of the subject of research in chronological order.

Historical essay definition, aim
Historical Essay: Definition

In a historical essay, the author analyzes, describes, and gives his interpretation of historical facts, information, and phenomena of social life. 

Features of the Historical Essay

  1. A freer, “rougher” form of information presentation (as opposed to a scientific article or monograph). 
  2. Readability and accessibility of the text for the common reader.
  3. Completeness. 
  4. Artistic imagery and literary style of writing. 
  5. Emotionality. 
  6. The author’s opinion.
  7. Reliability, documentary, and historical authenticity. 

Historical Essays Examples

This type of essay is a historical narrative based on existing historical works.

The author does not create new historical knowledge. He processes the available information, analyzes it, interprets it in his way, and presents the result to the casual reader in the form of a historical essay.

The historical essay is published in newspapers and magazines, as well as in the form of books (for example, “The Ancient British Church” by John Price or the historical essay “The Alfred Jewel” by John Earle).

Also writing a historical essay helps students delve into the subject, learn how to work with information, and analyze it independently.

Example #1

The expert from an article:

These pirates left the Caribbean behind – and stole the biggest booty ever

European pirates cruised the coasts of North America, western Africa, and South America during the so-called golden age of piracy, the period of heightened piratical activity in the Atlantic Ocean between 1650 and 1730. And many pirates like Blackbeard and Captain Kidd rose to notoriety in part due to their Caribbean exploits during that time. But in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, some pirates shifted their geographical focus to the Indian Ocean, along Africa’s eastern coast, lured by treasure-laden ships carrying gold, silver, and gems. Their malevolent deeds created a less famous focus of piracy’s golden era, which continues to some extent today. Who were these pirates and how exactly did this lesser known aspect of piracy transpire?

The allure of wealth 

By the 1690s, the Indian Ocean teemed with merchant vessels that routinely carried valuable cargoes. Convoys frequently transported wealthy Muslim pilgrims and luxury goods like silks and spices between the Mughal Empire (including present-day India) and Mecca. There were also the treasures carried by the East India Companies of England, France, and the Netherlands; ships headed east transported cash to finance operations in the region, while those returning west contained fine silks, jewels, and spices they had accumulated. The most coveted treasure ships, though, belonged to the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, who ruled his South Asian empire between 1658 until his death in 1707.
Pirates eyed these prospects of enormous wealth—gold, silver, and gems were much more profitable than the Caribbean’s timber, rum, and cloth—and flocked east in droves.

Arrival at St. Mary’s

As pirates arrived, they needed a safe harbor to refit their ships and escape storms, as well as a place to enjoy their loot. That place became Madagascar, 250 miles off the African coast, with St. Mary’s Island off its remote northeast coast being the most famous stronghold. The Indigenous Malagasy had until then successfully warded off Europeans eyeing the island’s strategic location along major shipping channels between Europe and Asia.

Example #2

The expert from an article:

Floating hell: the brutal history of prison hulks

Convicts in Georgian and Victorian Britain experienced notoriously miserable conditions, and perhaps no inmates endured harsher deprivations than those confined on prison hulks. Anna McKay reveals the horrors of these “wicked Noah’s arks”

Early one misty morning in 1855, Henry Mayhew and John Binny stepped aboard a dilapidated ship moored on the Thames. Its large wooden hull was studded with barred portholes; instead of flags, a rudimentary washing line hung between the ship’s masts. The overall impression was one of oppression and decay.

The Defence struck a curious contrast to the gleaming steamboats and sailboats streaming past: for one thing, rather than carrying passengers, it housed convicts. Formerly a naval man-of-war, it was now a prison ship, also known as a hulk.

Mayhew and Binny, both journalists and social reformers, had previously toured the prisons of London. They had inspected the solitary cells at Millbank, the exercise yards in Pentonville, and the female workrooms in Brixton. But the hulk system was unlike any other prison they had encountered.

The walls of this one were wooden, barely held together by rot. Led by a warder, the journalists descended into the belly of the ship. Here, each deck was divided by two rows of strong iron railings flanking a central passageway. Behind were open cells festooned with dingy hammocks, providing space for 240 men to sleep on each deck. As Mayhew and Binny looked on, a morning bell sounded and sleeping prisoners sprang into action, stowing hammocks, washing in buckets and scrubbing tables ready for breakfast.

If the scene inspired both wonder and despair in these men, their reactions were nothing new. For decades, prison reformers had protested at the use of hulks. And the Defence was not fit to be a prison, being nothing more than “a rotten leaky tub”.

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