Big History: Weighing the Benefits and Drawbacks of a Comparative Project

Casey Schmitt is a PhD candidate in History at the College of William & Mary, where she is writing a dissertation on the Iberian roots of seventeenth-century Anglo-American slave law. This is her second guest post, following her first on the value of storytelling and the use of audiobook primary sources in the classroom here.

barbadosmapA little over a year ago, I switched research interests from the study of eighteenth-century contraband trade between Jamaica and Cartagena de Indias to a comparative study of the codification of slave law in the greater Caribbean. Admittedly not too drastic of a change, I was nonetheless daunted by moving from a historiography containing a select number of significant works to a field where innumerable scholars have dedicated entire careers. Like any graduate student, I began working through the library stacks here at the College of William and Mary, seeking answers to what I thought would be easy questions: Were the legal regimes of European slave societies shaped by their interactions with other slave societies in the Caribbean? Were English slaveholding practices modeled off of successful Portuguese or Spanish examples? Why were there so many institutionalized efforts to codify slave law in the seventeenth century and did these separate legal dialogues unfold in conversation with one another? As you can probably guess, none of these questions have proven as easy to answer as I thought.

And yet, in the sources from the seventeenth century, I keep coming across tantalizing evidence pointing to the circulation of knowledge and practices among slaveholders of different empires. Barbadian planters voyaging to Brazil to learn plantation practices in Dutch Pernambuco, references in the sources from the English Caribbean about managing enslaved populations in the Portuguese or Spanish manner, or the consistent dialogue between English and French planters regarding slave law on islands such as St. Christopher’s. As a student interested in comparative legal history, it is precisely these kinds of moments, when the interests of slaveholders forced conversations across imperial lines, that fascinate me the most. It is also these kinds of moments, however, that point to the frequently unacknowledged difficulties of doing comparative research in the early modern period.

As I work through the enormous amount of material inherent in a comparative project, I cannot help but wonder about the payoff of such efforts. Even though we inhabit a moment when Atlantic and Continental projects are encouraged for young graduate students, I wonder if academia has really moved beyond what historians Eric Hinderaker and Rebecca Horn called the “daunting barriers [that] often limit their success”? Specifically, I am thinking of what Hinderaker and Horn recognize as the “conflicting institutional imperatives” that scholars seeking to write comparative projects face.[1] The most obvious difficulty comes from marshaling the kinds of resources necessary to conduct research in many different archives. But, I am often more troubled when colleagues ask me if I am going to present myself on the job market as a Latin Americanist, because of my research in the Iberian roots of slave law, or as a scholar of early North America because of my current graduate training. These were not questions that I anticipated having to answer when I came to the College of William and Mary to study early American history. But, at least for some concerned colleagues, the expansive boundaries of my research interests seem to place me beyond the scope of being comfortably labeled an early Americanist. And, as those colleagues have explained, this could be problematic for my professional future.

In many ways, comparative, Atlantic, and Continental projects continue to produce innovative scholarship that is reshaping the way we think about the early Americas. But I wonder if any other younger scholars feel pressed between the institutional structure of professional historical training on the one hand, and the desire to engage in broadly comparative projects on the other? As Hinderaker and Horn remind us, historians more and more “recognize the necessity of a hemispheric perspective,” but I am curious about how much the institutional side of the profession has “absorb[ed] and elaborate[d] its meanings.”[2]


[1] Eric Hinderaker and Rebecca Horn, “Territorial Crossings: Histories and Historiographies of the Early Americas,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series 67, no. 3 (July 2010): 395-432, 398.

[2] Ibid., 432.


6 responses

  1. I am working on a dissertation comparing the local racial dynamics of Spanish America and the U.S. through a comparison of Charleston, SC and Cartagena de Indias. About midway through the six months I spent in Colombia I realized that the reason there isn’t more comparative work is that it is extremely challenging and time consuming in a way that other types of projects just aren’t. As much as I try to use that knowledge to boost my self up during the lows of the dissertation process (“Hey! I’m doing something challenging!”) it just as often ends up as feeling like I’ve taken on an impossible task.

    In regards to institutional pressure vs the desire to take on a big project, I can’t say this has been too much of a worry for me. Perhaps because the nature my project places me firmly on both North and South America (and also looks at the 18th/19th C., rather than the 17th), I don’t feel like taking on a big comparative project will put me in a bind come job time. At least at the moment, I feel like my research will actually give me some much needed flexibility on the market. Hopefully.

    • Sounds like fascinating research! And yes, the issue of accepting that a comparative project will take much longer than other projects is something that is both intrinsically rewarding and sobering. It’s good to hear that you feel as though your project will only help you on the job market in terms of flexibility. Does that mean you’ll look for jobs teaching in both/either Latin America and 19th century U.S.?

      • Indeed, I plan to apply for jobs in U.S., Latin America, and Atlantic World. I think another element of working on a comparative project is that they tend to have a payoff in a number of different areas: my project speaks to Latin American scholarship differently than it speaks to scholarship on the U.S., which is aside from what I think the kind of “big picture” of the project is. That’s part of what I meant by “flexibility” I guess.

  2. These are some great comments. I think your anxieties about comparative studies are especially profound when thinking of crossing the Latin American/North American divide. While I too try to think in more broadly Atlantic terms, moving between the French and British Atlantic doesn’t seem to disqualify me from “early Americanist” status.

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