Q&A with Wim Klooster, author of Revolutions in the Atlantic World: A Comparative History, 2nd Edition

9781479857173_fullWhen Wim Klooster’s Revolutions in the Atlantic World: A Comparative History was published in 2009, it was one of the first monographs to bring together the American, French, Haitian, and Spanish American revolutions in a single English-language volume. Revolutions in the Atlantic World quickly became a seminal text, finding its way on many Atlantic history syllabi, comprehensive exam reading lists, and on researchers’ shelves. In January 2018, New York University Press released a second edition that incorporates historiography from the past nine years, including scholarship on indigenous peoples and privateers. Tomorrow, Jordan Taylor will have his review of this second edition. Today, The Junto’s Julia M. Gossard interviews Klooster about the book’s second edition, the Enlightenment, and the Age of Revolutions.

JUNTO: Congratulations on the release of Revolutions in the Atlantic World in a second edition. This is quite an accomplishment for an author and a testament to how successful the first edition was. How did you make the decision to follow it up with a second edition?

Wim Klooster: To do a second edition had hardly occurred to me when I stopped at the booth of NYU Press at the annual meeting of the AHA a few years ago. The editor was not there, and instead I struck up a conversation with the person in charge of marketing. Her encouragement to start working on a new edition began the whole process.

JUNTO: Marketers can be persuasive! Let it be an important lesson to authors to remember to speak not only to editors, but also to those in charge of marketing and publicity. Let’s talk for a minute about the scope of Revolutions in the Atlantic World.  When it was first published in 2009, it was really one of the first of its kind to compare the French, American, Haitian, and Spanish-American revolutions together in a single, English language volume. What was your inspiration for putting these events together?

Klooster: With some regularity, I had actually taught a seminar at my university that included all these revolutions when NYU Press came to me with the idea of writing a book about it. Although the obvious comparison used to be that between the American and the French revolutions, my interest in Spanish America and the connections and comparisons with those earlier revolutions made it a natural choice to add the independence movements in the Spanish empire. At the same time, I could benefit from the growing literature on the Haitian revolution and the marvelous collection on that topic at the John Carter Brown Library, where I wrote most of the book during a sabbatical.

JUNTO: You argue that the American, French, Haitian, and Spanish-American revolutions were truly global events, looking to conflicts not only in the Atlantic Ocean but also on the European continent. You skillfully demonstrate how conflicts were intertwined and had far reaching consequences across the early modern globe. Given this impressive knowledge of European and Atlantic history, do you consider yourself more of an Atlantic historian, a European historian, or something different entirely?

Klooster: My dissertation, which dealt with the contraband trade by Dutch settlers with foreign empires in the early modern period, set me on the path to become an Atlanticist. I still see myself primarily as an Atlantic historian, although I realize that it is just one way of approaching the past. National, continental, and global history are all useful, but are all limited in what they can teach us. The same goes for Atlantic history. One thing that keeps me from casting my net even wider is language. I have no knowledge of African languages or those of indigenous Americans, but it helps to be able to read the languages of all the European colonizers of the Atlantic. When I open a book about Chinese or Ottoman history, I am very much aware that I could not never check what is in most of the footnotes.

JUNTO: That’s very true about languages, though you do possess quite an array of language skills already! One of the most interesting parts of Revolutions is its reframing of the Enlightenment. Critiqued for its Euro-centrism, the Enlightenment is experiencing a moment of important revision, especially within colonial Latin American history.  For example, Bianca Premo’s new work The Enlightenment on Trial: Ordinary Litigants and Colonialism in the Spanish Empire (Oxford, 2017), argues that the Enlightenment was not a uniquely Western European movement and did not involve only literate people. How does your view of the Enlightenment and its role in the Age of Revolutions compare to this Enlightenment revisionism?

Klooster: The relationship between Enlightenment and the revolutions that took place in the years between 1775 and 1824 is a complex one. The notion that the former produced the latter is far too simplistic, even though it was maintained in the period itself by many opponents of the revolutions. It has become clear that Enlightenment ideas could be used for the purpose of both national or imperial reform and for fleshing out policies that helped shape new, sovereign polities. Premo’s book is the most convincing revisionist work on the Enlightenment to appear in many years. She shows that Enlightenment notions of rights and freedom did not only involve a reading public as in Europe but were used by people of all walks of life, including slaves and other illiterate people, in courts of law throughout the Spanish empire. Of course, her argument does not invalidate other, more traditional ways of approaching the Enlightenment, and Premo certainly does not suggest that. But one of the book’s blurb writers draws the wrong conclusion by saying “To understand Enlightenment, go to Peru, don’t read Voltaire.” Without European writers like Voltaire, the Enlightenment would not have existed. Perhaps the main influence on Spanish America, as Premo reveals, was the German natural rights theorist Johann Gottfried Heineccius. To deny the importance of such ideas would be to distort the Enlightenment.

JUNTO: By recognizing the Enlightenment as an inspiration for the Age of Revolutions instead of a, or the, cause of it, your work definitely compliments these emerging revisionist critiques.  Are you still working on Atlantic Revolutions or are you moving in a different direction in future works?

Klooster: After two books on the Dutch Atlantic, I am once again focused on the Age of Revolutions. The minor project is a book called Spanish America’s Independence Movements: A History in Documents, and the larger project is The Cambridge History of the Age of Atlantic Revolutions, of which I’m the sole editor. I have just embarked on the second project by inviting about eighty contributors from around the world for this three-volume work.

Wim Klooster is Professor of History at Clark University where he has taught since 2003.  After earning his doctorate at the University of Leiden (the Netherlands), he has been a Fulbright fellow, an Alexander Vietor Memorial Fellow and an Inter-Americas Mellon Fellow at the John Carter Brown Library, a Charles Warren Fellow at Harvard University, a Post-Doctoral Fellow in Atlantic History at the National University of Ireland, Galway, and a fellow at the Netherlands Institute of Advanced Study in Wassenaar. His work has a strong comparative dimension and focuses on revolt and revolution, maritime illegality, the Dutch empire, and Jewish trade and migration. Klooster is the author of dozens of articles and nine monographs and edited books, including The Dutch Moment: War, Trade, and Settlement in the Seventeenth-Century Atlantic World (2016), Revolutions in the Atlantic World: A Comparative History (2009 and 2018), and Illicit Riches: Dutch Trade in the Caribbean, 1648-1795 (1998). Klooster has been co-editor of Brill’s Atlantic World series since 2001.

Remember to check back tomorrow for Jordan Taylor’s review of Klooster’s Revolutions in the Atlantic World: A Comparative History, 2nd Edition.


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