Interview with Michael Jarvis, Junto March Madness 2014 Champion

Jarvis CoverWe here at The Junto would like once more to thank everyone who participated in this year’s March Madness tournament, including those who nominated books, all of the voters, and the authors who made some of these match-ups very close indeed.

To close out this year’s lunacy, we thought it would be fun to check in with the winner. Michael Jarvis, a professor of history at the University of Rochester, took home top honors this year for his 2010 book In the Eye of All Trade: Bermuda, Bermudians, and the Maritime Atlantic World, 1680-1783. The Junto caught up with Jarvis by email to get his thoughts on the tournament, his book, the field of Atlantic history, and the challenges of a major research project.

JUNTO: Congratulations on your victory! Were you surprised that In the Eye of All Trade drew so much interest?

MJ: I am stunned to have won the contest and want to thank everyone who voted for me at any stage. Each round I thought a book about a small Atlantic island would be trounced by important histories about a bigger island, urban race and labor, a controversial founding father, a core US political document and its unacknowledged shapers, and the early years of England’s first colony. I think Eye’s support probably came from a rising cohort of Atlantic and maritime history scholars, students who had this book recently assigned in Atlantic World seminars and liked the pan-colonial comparative and connective approaches, and, of course, the many Bermudians who have discovered their own personal pasts in it. It also speaks to archaeologists, material culture and decorative arts scholars, and historians of race, slavery, gender, migration, and many other colonies who shared maritime links through understudied intercolonial coastal trades. I think it also probably helped that I was always the lowest-seed underdog!

Although it’s nice to have won, I’ll be the first to admit this isn’t the “best” recently published book in early American history−the field has exploded exponentially in the past two decades and such a designation is impossibly lofty. Rather, the contest broadly recognized dozens of great, important works–and my own summer reading list has happily grown as a result.

JUNTO: On the day of the final matchup, you noted the coincidence that the two finalists dealt with roughly the same group of people—the founders of both Bermuda, the topic of your book, and Virginia, the subject of Goetz’s. Do you think that points to a resurgence for the Chesapeake in the now-eternal debate between whether that region or New England was more important for the development of British colonial North America? [1]

MJ: As an Atlanticist, I’d like to move past this nationalistically framed debate resting on a false binary. With a sample of two, the Chesapeake and New England look like extreme poles. Considering Bermuda, which was founded in 1612 in between Jamestown (1607) and Plymouth (1620), highlights a continuum of colonial development that makes both Virginia and Massachusetts seem less distinctive. Bermuda’s Puritan colonizers entered into a religious compact (1612), migrated and farmed as families, enjoyed long healthy lives, built churches, hanged witches, developed a diversified agricultural export economy, and became commercial carriers like New Englanders, but also raised tobacco, owned African slaves, and were tied to a London-based joint-stock company like Virginians. Indeed, slavery in English America began in Bermuda in 1616, not, as most textbooks claim, in 1619 Jamestown. Bermuda was a social, economic, and cultural mash-up of these two US regions. The Caribbean was also critical to American colonization as well. Recovering the interconnected Anglo-American whole within a comparative colonial framework and positioning island colonies alongside better-studied continental ones (and vast non-European continental interiors) has helped expand and refine our notion of Early America–which was wonderfully reflected in The Junto’s starting slate of 64 books.

JUNTO: For those of our readers who haven’t read your book, why should they?

MJ: It’s a challenging book about a colony (currently England’s oldest, 402 years) that breaks many of the old and familiar categories, with Puritan tobacco planters and African-descended slaves imported for their expertise (rather than mere labor) who worked on ships, not plantations. Bermuda had too little land and too much labor, which developed a commercial and industrial economy in an empire of agricultural exporters. Bermudian emigrants from their crowded island also helped found twelve other American colonies, linking this early “cultural hearth” to many other colonial histories. It sheds light on self-organized maritime kin networks spanning vast oceanic distances, the workings of maritime slavery, the considerable roles and responsibilities of women in sustaining households and Bermuda’s domestic economy, and how ordinary settlers doing their own thing (rather than imperial architects in London) expanded British America commercially and geographically. Finally, it adds important new dimensions to the “wet” side of the American War for Independence and its seismic impact beyond the Thirteen Colonies.

JUNTO: What drew you to Bermuda as a topic?

MJ: I first came to Bermuda in 1991 as a William & Mary grad student looking just for a fun summer working on an archaeology dig. I found instead a cool dissertation topic. My then-housemate was studying the Canadian fur trade and, by contrast, Bermuda offered a warmer and sunnier place to do research! Intriguingly, my site had lots of non-British artifacts–evidence of smuggling–I rarely saw in previous Virginia excavations. After a visit to the Bermuda Archives revealed documents dating to 1616, I realized I had hit a dissertation jackpot–I’d found a place almost as old as Jamestown with its written records intact on which very little research had been done. Early on, I had a hard time arguing for the importance of a “marginal” colony that was neither North American nor Caribbean, but Bermuda ideally fit within the new Atlantic approach because it demonstrated when and how various (often inter-imperial) intercolonial networks formed. It’s an absolutely beautiful place with wonderfully supportive organizations and residents keenly interested in their own 400-year history. Bermuda also has an amazingly well-preserved array of historic buildings, material culture, and archaeological sites to complement the island’s written record. I love puzzles, and explaining Bermuda’s past and present provides me with a vastly complex, multi-faceted puzzle to investigate.

JUNTO: Where do you see the concept of the Atlantic World going in the next decade?

MJ: I think the AW as a place and an approach has gone mainstream; there are few young scholars who won’t think about their research within this context. It’s done sterling work in broadening “Early America” beyond nationalistic and Anglo-American categories in the past two decades. Recent “AW versus . . .” debates have hopefully settled into an era where Atlantic, Continental, Hemispheric, Global, regional, and micro-historical approaches can usefully coexist and overlap as scholars sensibly adopt the best framings for their particular subjects. Among Atlanticists, I hope to read more work on places that haven’t fit neatly into empires and formal colonial studies (especially in the Caribbean) and a further quickening of the trend towards greater integration of archaeology, architecture, literature, linguistics, and environmental studies in AW histories. It should be an exciting time ahead: graduate students can rewrite many of the old colonial histories and community studies within larger Atlantic and global contexts, making use of newly transformed sources like digitized colonial records and newspapers, sophisticated organizational databases, and GIS platforms to transcend old methodological constraints. And pirates. More books on pirates.

JUNTO: What are you working on now/next?

MJ: I’m keeping busy. I’m making a hybrid digital museum exhibit of Eye of All Trade for Bermuda’s UNESCO World Heritage Center to disseminate the book’s core arguments and content to a larger audience–an experiment in public history. I’m also in year three of an eight-year archaeological study of Smiths Island (Bermuda) linking underwater and terrestrial archaeology and takes as its unit of study ten generations of changing life for humble, largely undocumented Bermudians. The 16 sites we’ve found span Bermuda’s pre-colonial, agricultural, maritime, military, and tourism phases, starting with the island’s first farm (1610), run by three castaway sailors. Other sites include a house where nine Native American slaves lived in 1707, a whale processing station, a cluster of enslaved or free black homes, a smallpox quarantine “pesthouse”, and a 1960s hippie hydroponic farming commune. I blog about the field school’s findings in real time during the May-June season at smithsislandarchaeology.blogspot.com.

I also run a digital history lab creating a Virtual St. George’s (Bermuda), wherein we’re building 3D computer models of  Bermuda’s first capital in the 1650s, 1720s, 1770s, and 1810s–sort of a digital/virtual/augmented reality experience akin to visiting Colonial Williamsburg or Plimoth Plantation via a website and interacting with animated avatars of St. George’s residents. Sort of like Assassin’s Creed IV but you learn history rather than rob and kill people.

I’ve finished a prequel to Eye of All Trade covering the Virginia and Bermuda Company periods (1609-1684) but am struggling to cut 30,000 words. After that, I’m shifting my attention to maritime culture broadly and comparatively, looking at intersections between seafaring and religion in the long 18th century.

JUNTO: Finally, many of our readers are junior scholars in the field. What advice do you have for them in completing their first major research project?

MJ: First, find a subject you absolutely love that will compel you to research and write. Passion is critical. While you’re on stipend, concentrate solely on research and writing. Live frugally and, if possible, avoid adjuncting and side jobs that will delay completing your dissertation. As you’re working on your dissertation, keep in mind the book it’s going to become–it will save you time and energy you won’t have later if/when you’re balancing a family and a demanding job. Write foremost to engage other scholars but also try to make it appeal beyond academia. I wrote simultaneously for many different types of readers and strove to make the book accessible to most Bermudians–or anyone, really–interested in the island’s past: public history practically applied. Write constantly and edit down later. Get smart people to read and critique your work; embrace their suggestions even when it will mean a lot more work–the final product will be much better for it. (Less is often more, but I still struggle with this!) Finally, set firm, incremental, and achievable deadlines for yourself. My dissertation deadline was the impending birth of my first daughter but yours probably doesn’t need to be this non-negotiably extreme.


[1] In the interest of full disclosure, the interviewer, though bearing no strong affiliation in the debate, did attend a graduate school that was at least at one time very strongly invested on one side.

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