Review: Atlantic Families, Race, and Empire

Daniel Livesay, Children of Uncertain Fortune: Mixed-Race Jamaicans in Britain and the Atlantic Family, 1733-1833 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press published for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, 2018).

A central thread running through Daniel Livesay’s Children of Uncertain Fortune is deceptively simple: Atlantic families structured the development of ideologies surrounding race in the British empire during the long eighteenth century.[1] Woven through the book, however, is a richly nuanced exploration of what terms like Atlantic, family, race, and empire meant and how understandings of those terms changed over a pivotal hundred-year period starting in the 1730s. Through institutional records and family papers produced on both sides of the Atlantic, Livesay identifies 360 mixed-race people from Jamaica and traces the lived experiences of a handful of them as they navigated their social and economic position within transatlantic kin networks. Those individual narratives reveal how Britons experienced empire through family ties in ways that shaped their perceptions of race, colonialism, and belonging. Continue reading

Inspiration Roundtable: Haunting Sources

Today, Lindsay O’Neill, Assistant Professor of History at the University of Southern California, joins our weeklong discussion about sources and inspiration. Her first book, The Opened Letter: Networking in the Early Modern British World, was published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in 2015. Today she shares the sources that inspired (or haunted) her book-in-progress, titled “Barbarous Country: The Delogaon Princes and the British Empire, 1715-1725.”

photo_1023589 O'Neill

I do not remember precisely when the princes began to haunt me. It might have been when I called up the ominous sounding “Book of Strangers” at the Huntington Library. This turned out to simply be a list of dinner guests at the Duke of Chandos’ estate of Cannons, but what I found inside was rather extraordinary. Listed at the Duke’s table on 24 September 1721 were “Two African Princes.” Intriguing, I thought. However, this must not have been the first time I came across a reference to them, for I remember knowing who these men were. I had, or would, read about them in letters from the Duke of Chandos who hosted the dinner. I would encounter them again in the letters of Sir John Perceval. And then again in the letters of Sir Hans Sloane. I told you these two men were haunting me. Now, there was no reason for them to. At the time, I was not interested in African princes. I was interested in letters since I was working on what would become my first book: The Opened Letter: Networking in the Early Modern British World. But it turned out that the loosely linked letter writers whose correspondence I was working my way through were interested in African princes and soon so was I. Continue reading

Inspiration Roundtable: Guest Post by Whitney Barlow Robles, “Naturalist in Historian’s Clothing”

This week at the Junto we are stepping back to talk about what inspired our research projects. From dissertations to first and second book projects, we will bring together a range of scholars to discuss the method, source, book, or lecture that got them started. Today, we have a guest post from Whitney Barlow Robles. Whitney is a PhD candidate in American Studies at Harvard, and her work spans early American history, history of science, and material culture studies. Her most recent publications include an essay about a 1755 earthquake that shook Boston, published in The New England Quarterly, and a chapter about flattened scientific specimens in the book The Philosophy Chamber: Art and Science in Harvard’s Teaching Cabinet, 1766-1820. Her research has recently been supported by the American Historical Association, the American Antiquarian Society, and the Smithsonian Institution.

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I am a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Or rather, a nature writer dressed as a historian. My dissertation reexamines the history of natural history in eighteenth-century America and the British Atlantic world by putting animals and natural specimens at the narrative center. It asks: What might historical documents, written or dried or submerged in alcohol, tell us about the actions of historical creatures? Why did animals remain, at some level, inscrutable? How did they escape the net, crash the experiment, shapeshift, fly away, or even help naturalists preserve specimens? And what might their role in early modern science tell us about the larger social and political projects powered by natural history? Liable to change over time, animals influenced the human world through their behavior, biology, physical traits, and, in the case of beasts like raccoons, perhaps even their own desires. Without understanding how animals circumscribed the project that sought to study them and thus set the terms for what humans could learn about nature, our view remains obscured. We can look through the microscope, but only with a cloudy lens. Continue reading

A Short Ode to Slow History

An article just came out in the American Historical Review’s October issue that should be on the radar for anyone interested in early American history: Holly Brewer’s “Slavery, Sovereignty, and ‘Inheritable Blood’: Reconsidering John Locke and the Origins of American Slavery.” In it, Brewer connects Locke’s criticism of absolutism with an opposition to inheritable slavery, thereby casting our understanding of democracy, capitalism, and slavery in an entirely new light. Continue reading

Book Review: Carla Gardina Pestana, The English Conquest of Jamaica

Carla Gardina Pestana, The English Conquest of Jamaica: Oliver Cromwell’s Bid for Empire (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2017).

Pestana Review

It is an exciting time to be a scholar of Caribbean history. From conferences to publications, the past decade has seen historians of early America, Latin America, and the Atlantic world turn to the Caribbean for insights into the development of empire, slavery, race, and commerce.[1] In this resurgence of Caribbean historiography, the seventeenth century has emerged as a pivotal period. That said, by taking a relatively well-known event like the Western Design, UCLA Professor and Joyce Appleby Endowed Chair of America and the World, Carla Gardina Pestana, demonstrates the value of exploring the early Caribbean in her new book The English Conquest of Jamaica: Oliver Cromwell’s Bid for Empire. Pestana’s work aptly shows the profound intellectual pay-off for historians willing to explore the seventeenth-century Caribbean with bigger questions about imperialism, race, religion, and gender. Continue reading

Q&A: Ernesto Bassi, author of An Aqueous Territory

Following up on James Hill’s review of Ernesto Bassi’s An Aqueous Territory: Sailor Geographies and New Granada’s Transimperial Greater Caribbean World (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017), we’re pleased to post this Q&A with Ernesto about his book and future research. Bassi is Assistant Professor of History at Cornell University. He is a historian of Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Atlantic world during the Age of Revolutions, whose work transgresses conventionally defined geographic units of analysis. Ernesto can be reached at eb577@cornell.edu. Continue reading

Guest Post: Review of Bassi, An Aqueous Territory

Today’s review is by James Hill, who received his Ph.D. from the College of William & Mary in 2016 and is currently an Assistant Professor of History at the University of the Bahamas. He has published articles in Early American Studies (Winter 2014) and the Florida Historical Quarterly (Fall 2014). His dissertation, “Muskogee Internationalism in an Age of Revolution, 1763-1818,” analyzes Creek and Seminole diplomacy. This will be followed tomorrow by a Q&A with the author.

Ernesto Bassi, An Aqueous Territory: Sailor Geographies and New Granada’s Transimperial Greater Caribbean World (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016).

For decades, the historiographies of the Caribbean and the mainland Americas largely remained separate, with the modern constructions of nation-states influencing how scholars have framed the geographical parameters of their works, with some notable exceptions (New Spain, Guyana, Suriname). In recent years this has begun to change in the case of North America’s early modern ties to the Caribbean. Scholars such as Jane Landers, J. R. McNeil, and Shannon Lee Dawdy have emphasized transnational and transimperial connections between various Caribbean islands and the territories that eventually encompass the United States. Continue reading