Review: Janet Polasky, Revolutions Without Borders

Janet Polasky, Revolutions Without Borders: The Call to Liberty in the Atlantic World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015).

R. R. Palmer’s Age of Democratic Revolutions famously had no room in its two volumes for what many of us now recognise as the most revolutionary of them all—the one in Haiti between 1791 and 1804.[1] Janet Polasky has written a version for our own time, in which black men and white women mingle with the better-known protagonists of American, French, Dutch, and other, less successful revolutions in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. Revolutions Without Borders is no analytical, comparative account, but an histoire croisée in which people and texts are constantly on the move, interacting with each other in all sorts of ways, setting off unexpected sparks. Continue reading

The King’s Arms?

IMG_1862Paper soldiers on the march, and tin men tilting at swordpoint: these were the first battle ranks that Grenville Howland Norcross, aged 11 in Civil War Boston, led to glory. Between phantom invasions and replays of Antietam with “relics” received as gifts, Norcross gobbled up the military heroics popularized by the era’s dime novels. In a childhood diary that illustrates how “lowbrow” literature grabbed the imagination of a warsick homefront, Norcross chronicled his progress through the antics of Kate Sharp, Old Hal Williams, and Crazy Dan. By 1875, Norcross had outgrown his toy battalions, graduated Harvard, and stepped into a law career. An avid autograph collector, from his Commonwealth Avenue perch Norcross nurtured the city’s flourishing history culture, taking a leading role at the New England Historic and Genealogical Society, the American Antiquarian Society, and the Bostonian Society. He rose to serve as Cabinet-Keeper for the Massachusetts Historical Society, supervising the intake and cataloguing of major collections including, by April 1920, the library of historian Henry Adams. At the Society’s next meeting, held in the midafternoon of 10 June, Grenville Norcross reported on the Cabinet’s newest curiosity, which has proven a royal mystery ever since:

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A is for “Anthropocene”

Anthropocene wordleToday I want to pretend that I know how to read science journals, particularly a recent Nature article by scientists Simon L. Lewis and Mark A. Maslin entitled “Defining the Anthropocene.”[1] Reading a summary about the article was provocation enough to read the article itself, which in turn sparked a more extended rumination about chronology, interdisciplinarity, and scholarly divides. Continue reading

Recap: “So Sudden an Alteration” Conference (9-11 April 2015)

Two weeks ago, 175 historians descended upon the Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS) in Boston for a three-day conference that considered the political, social, economic, and global parameters of the American Revolution. The conference consisted of eight panels (with pre-circulated papers), two keynotes, and some special presentations on digital projects. The conference proceedings were live-tweeted under #RevReborn2, and fellow Juntoist Joseph Adelman provided some live coverage on the blog. The Junto has also had some post-conference commentaries, including “You Say You Want a Revolution” by Joseph Adelman and “The Suddenness of the Alteration: Some Afterthoughts on #RevReborn2” by Michael Hattem.

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Guest Post: Disaster, Death, and Distilleries

Today’s guest post comes from Jordan Smith, a PhD Candidate in Atlantic History at Georgetown University. His dissertation, “The Invention of Rum,” investigates the development and production of rum in the seventeenth and eighteenth-century Atlantic World.

Warning: This post contains graphic accounts of industrial accidents.

RumOn a recent research trip to Barbados, I stopped by the Mount Gay Visitors Center. There, between tastes of a variety of rums, tour guides regaled me with a heroic tale of Barbados’s place in the invention of rum. Afterwards, I was handed a brochure which proclaimed Mount Gay to be “the rum that invented rum.” The reasoning for this marketing strategy is simple enough—Mount Gay is one of many distilleries that makes a financial killing off of linking their product to a happy history of ingenuity and originality. Yet accounts of eighteenth-century distillery disasters suggest that this invention and innovation of rum was often undergirded by shocking violence.   Continue reading

When Sources Talk Back

Boazio_Battle-of-Santo-Domingo

How do we select the sources we use? How do we approach those sources once we’ve selected them? What does that process do to the stories we eventually tell about the past? And, what happens when our sources disagree with the choices we’ve made?

That last question is one that historians working on the early modern period rarely have to grapple with – after all, the individuals who wrote the letters, manuscripts, and account books that we read have been dead for a very long time. And, it is an issue that I’ve blithely ignored until I read Manuel Gonzalez Pallano Tinoco’s “Narrative of the Invasion of La Española, Santo Domingo, which the English Attempted in 1655.” It is near the end of Captain Tinoco’s detailed description of the failed English invasion of Spanish Santo Domingo that this long-deceased chronicler called out future historians who would use his narrative on any but his own terms. And, his reasoning was compelling enough to make me question my own methodology in using his history in my work. Continue reading

Q&A with Stephen R. Berry, Author of A Path in the Mighty Waters

9780300204230The following is an interview with Stephen R. Berry, an Associate Professor of History at Simmons College. My review of Berry’s recently-released book, A Path in the Mighty Waters: Shipboard Life and Atlantic Crossings to the New World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015) appeared on the blog yesterday. Today, he agreed to answer some follow-up questions about his book and his future research plans. Continue reading