Obituary: Professor David Beers Quinn ; Historian of the Colonisation of America

By A. N. Ryan | The Independent (London, England), June 21, 2002 | Go to article overview
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Obituary: Professor David Beers Quinn ; Historian of the Colonisation of America


A. N. Ryan, The Independent (London, England)


DAVID BEERS QUINN, Emeritus Professor of Modern History in Liverpool University, saw his first publication into print in 1932, his last in 1993. His active contribution to historical research, publication and teaching continued until he was overtaken by failing health in the 1990s.

He was born in Dublin in 1909 and brought up with the Protestant community in the small market town of Clara, King's County, now Co Offaly. In 1928 he went up to Queen's University Belfast to read for a degree in Medieval and Modern History, graduating with first class honours in 1931. Quinn was wont to acknowledge warmly the influence upon his academic development of Estyn Evans who taught geography at Queen's and who introduced him to archaeology and ethnology.

After graduation he went on to King's College London, where he was awarded in 1934 the degree of PhD for a doctoral dissertation on Ireland in the Tudor era which was to remain one of his major historical interests and which helped to draw him to the study of English activity on the Atlantic and in early 17th-century North America.

David Quinn's first academic posts were those of Assistant Lecturer at University College, Southampton, in 1934 and Lecturer in 1937. He held further posts at Queen's, Belfast, and University College Swansea (Professor of History, 1944-57) before appointment to the Andrew Geddes and John Rankin Chair of Modern History at Liverpool, which post he held from 1957 until his retirement in 1976. Looking back in later life at the time spent in London, Southampton and Belfast he derived much satisfaction from what he called his "small part in the renaissance of Irish history, on a non- partisan basis between North and South, which had already begun and which I am happy to say has survived and flourished".

He came to Liverpool with an assured academic reputation based on a series of papers in learned journals dealing with Ireland, English influences thereon and early English transatlantic efforts. This last interest was also represented by the first of his major works of documentation, The Voyage and Colonising Enterprises of Sir Humphrey Gilbert (two volumes, 1940 - published during the Battle of Britain), and by The Roanoke Voyages 1584-1590 (two volumes, 1955). Both were published by the Hakluyt Society, with which David Quinn was to be associated for the rest of his life as member, editor and officer.

This association with a society established in 1846 for the purpose of promoting the publication of rare or hitherto unpublished sources relating to the history of travel, discovery and exploration provided him with an appropriate academic environment for the pursuit of his historical interests and the exploitation of his particular talents. Everybody familiar with Quinn's work and his methods of working recognised his remarkable aptitude for unearthing documentary evidence and his equally remarkable capacity for its interpretation.

Dedicated as many of them are to the early history of European North America, Quinn's writings are known and highly appreciated there. They were not confined to his contribution to the Hakluyt Society. Works addressed to a wider readership include Raleigh and the British Empire (1947), The Elizabethans and the Irish (1966), North American Discovery, circa 1000- 1612 (1971), England and the Discovery of America 1481-1620 (1974) and England's Sea Empires 1550- 1642 (with A.

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