The Zamani Reader

A History Blog from a History Student


Reviews and Precis

Review of Ogenga Otunnu’s Crisis of Legitimacy and Political Violence in Uganda, 1890-1979

OGENGA OTUNNU. Crisis of Legitimacy and Political Violence in Uganda, 1890-1979. African Histories and Modernities. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016. Pp. xv, 369. $109.00. Hardback. ISBN: 978-3-319-33155-3.

According to Ugandan native, historian of Africa, and scholar of global refugee and forced migration studies, Ogenga Otunnu, nations of the world can be classified according to four typologies of state power. They can be despotically and infrastructurally strong, despotically and infrastructurally weak, despotically strong but infrastructurally weak, and, most ideally, despotically weak but infrastructurally strong. Since its creation as a predatory, kleptocratic, despotic, and conflict-ridden state at the onset of the African colonial period, in 1890, Uganda has oscillated among the first three typologies but it has never achieved the fourth. In Crisis of Legitimacy and Political Violence in Uganda, 1890-1979, Otunnu explains this situation by analyzing the history of Uganda from the precolonial period to the fall of Idi Amin in 1979. He argues that Uganda suffers from a severe and persistent crisis of legitimacy or a “legitimation deficit.” This deficit is shared by the state, its institutions, its incumbents, and their challengers. It is the result of factors that are contemporary and historical as well as foreign and domestic. Most importantly, this deficit remains “the most significant factor accounting for the intense political violence” in the country today (1, 321). Addressing this crisis is vital to stemming political violence and turning Uganda into a rights-based and developed nation that is inclusive, representative, and respectful of its citizens.

The work under review here is the first installment in a two-volume series about the origins, persistence, and effects of political violence in Uganda. (Otunnu’s second book has the same title, is due out in 2017, and will take the narrative from 1979 to 2016.) The dates featured in this title—1890 to 1979—form the core of Otunnu’s chronological focus. Three eighty-page chapters explore Uganda’s colonial era (1890-1962), the Obote regime (1962-1971), and the Amin regime (1971-1979). And yet, Otunnu wisely sets the stage for these three main sections with an opening chapter that surveys the history of several polities in precolonial Uganda, from roughly 1500 to 1889. The societies analyzed here—Bunyoro-Kitara, Buganda, and Acoli—showcase the diversity of social and political structures that were inherited and/or disrupted by the British colonial regime. Otunnu traces, for instance, how a kingdom like Buganda evolved form an independent monarchy in the precolonial period to an agent or “mask” of British imperial power in the colonial period. Similarly, Otunnu demonstrates a traditional system of legitimacy that the Ugandan state has yet to successfully revive. As he argues, the many precolonial and decentralized polities of Acoli in the north fit the ideal model of a state that was despotically weak but infrastructurally strong. As such, Acoli was characterized by democratic traditions and practices, government accountability to civil society, widespread feelings of legitimacy, and a lack of both corruption and violence.

Continue reading “Review of Ogenga Otunnu’s Crisis of Legitimacy and Political Violence in Uganda, 1890-1979”

Review of Gwendolyn Midlo Hall’s Slavery and African Ethnicities in the Americas: Restoring the Links

Gwendolyn Midlo Hall. Slavery and African Ethnicities in the Americas: Restoring the Links.  Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2005. xxii + 248 pp. $27.50. Illustrations, maps, figures, tables, appendices, notes, bibliography, and index.

Gwendolyn Midlo Hall’s Slavery and African Ethnicities in the Americas is a short, passionate, yet far-reaching book which seeks to “challenge the still widely held belief among scholars as well as the general public that Africans were so fragmented when they arrived in the Western Hemisphere that specific African regions and ethnicities had little influence on particular regions in the Americas.” Generally, Hall is an expert on cultures in the African diaspora to the Americas. She is well-known for her case study—Africans in Colonial Louisiana: The Development of Afro-Creole Culture in the Eighteenth Century (1992)—and her tendency to conduct research in Spanish, French, English, and now Portuguese. In this book, she offers a solid if heavy handed introduction to the transfer of African ethnicities and regional cultures to the Americas over the entire early-modern period. She argues the French and Spanish were better at recording “ethnic designations” for slaves than other Europeans (viz. English and Americans); that most of what was recorded reflects self-identification by enslaved people rather than impositions by others; and that, by historicizing such records across time and place, historians can recover many different processes of creolization, especially the ways in which “specific African regions and ethnicities” gave “major contributions” to “the formation of the new cultures developing throughout the Americas.”[1]

Hall begins with a righteous preface (titled “Truth and Reconciliation”) that sets high stakes for her defense of Africans, who “have received very little recognition for their contributions and sacrifices and very few of the benefits.” Her first chapter is an historical and historiographic outline of the slave trade, reiterating her moral imperatives and critiquing various historians for “excusing and rationalizing” slavery. The next two chapters are methodological pieces that address problems related to studying ethnicities in the diaspora while arguing for their “clustering” through homogenous “cargoes” and successive “waves.” The next four chapters are case studies about broad areas of the African coast—north to south—out of which slaves were shipped. Each outlines the region’s trade and focuses on the impact one or two migrant groups had in the Americas. Respectively, they cover 1) the Bamana of “Greater Senegambia/Upper Guinea;” 2) the Mina of “Lower Guinea: Ivory Coast, Gold Coast, Slave Coast/Bight of Benin,” 3) the Igbo of “Lower Guinea: The Bight of Biafra,” and 4) the Kongo or Angolans of “Bantulands: West Central Africa and Mozambique.” Finally, Hall’s concludes with a short recapitulation of her study’s implications.[2]

What about Hall’s sources? One of her goals is to prove “the value of combining the study of [quantitative] data from transatlantic slave trade voyages with [qualitative] descriptions of African ethnicities in documents from various times and places in the America.” For this, she relies on three categories. The first is her own Louisiana Slave Database, 1791-1820 (2000), which has information for 104,000 Africans in colonial Louisiana. 8,842 are listed with ethnic designations, taken from baptismal records, bills of sale, plantation inventories, runaway ads, interrogation transcripts, court testimonies, and more. The second is David Eltis’ Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database (1999), which has information on over 35,000 slave trading expeditions, including their initial points of “embarkation” and “disembarkation,” between 1527 and 1866. The final category consists of more-traditional manuscript collections from Louisiana, France, and Spain. In this category we can include an extensive secondary literature on the transshipment or inter-colonial slave trade, as well as regions in both Africa and the Americas that are outside of Hall’s bailiwick.[3]

Hall is an unrestrained arguer. Here, I will focus only on historiography that relates directly to ethnicity. Hall fits with scholars who support the survival of specific yet broad regional cultures through the Middle Passage, and the need to historicize “ethnic designations” in the documentary record of the American colonies as reliable expressions of those individual cultures. This includes Michael Gomez, James Sweet, Paul Lovejoy, Gabriel Debien, David Geggus, David Littlefield, John Thornton, and others. Hall’s emphasis on people uniting based on “mutually intelligible languages” or specialized skills from their home region is especially reminiscent of this work. Interestingly, one of Hall’s main historiographic predecessors is her own. She has argued, for instance, that Africans in Louisiana who identified as “Bambara” were really Bamana from Senegambia and were a dominant and troublesome group to French and Spanish colonists. Broadly, this perspective juxtaposes Hall’s work with historians of the creolization school—such as Richard Price, Sidney Mintz, and Vincent Brown—who emphasize the inherent randomization of the slave trade, the core heterogeneity of all diasporic communities, and the idea that “ethnic designations” represent either imposed “product labels” or sui generis cultures that defy traditional ethnicities.[4]

The problems with studying ethnicities in the diaspora are vast. They involve working with inconsistent, changing, and unclear terminology; nonexistent and understudied records; and persistent doubt about when to interpret designations as signifiers of self-conscious collectives; intentional or accidental misattributions; or markers of fluid communities. Accordingly, while Hall succeeds brilliantly at times—like in her historicization of the designation “Mina” across four hundred years of transatlantic history—her execution is not perfect overall. Her single-minded focus leads her to emphasize homogeneity even if the numbers suggest otherwise and de-emphasize moments when slaves appear to be developing new cultures or working across ethnic lines. Also, while Hall introduces the tools we can use to study ethnicities in the Americas, she does not fulfill her promise to show how they contributed to the formation of individual cultures. Instead, this discussion remains mostly limited to vague ideas about the perceived labor value of certain groups, like Africans from Upper Guinea as better rice cultivators, women from the Bight Biafra as better mothers, and Africans from various regions as better miners. Regardless, Hall claims her book is only “the beginning of the long, complex, challenging, but important task of restoring the severed links between Africa and the Americas.” If we judge Slavery and African Ethnicities as only the beginning of this monumental endeavor, then it is certainly a beginning worth commending.[5]


[1] Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, Slavery and African Ethnicities in the Americas: Restoring the Links (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2005), xv, 38, 49.

[2] Ibid. xvi, 8, 55-56.

[3] Ibid. 168.

[4] Ibid. 9-11, 132.

[5] Ibid. 165.

Review of Rebecca Shumway’s The Fante and the Transatlantic Slave Trade

Rebecca Shumway. The Fante and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Rochester: The University of Rochester Press, 2011. xii + 244 pp. $90.00. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, and index.

In The Rise of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade in Western Africa, 1300-1589, Toby Green wrote, “There was not one Atlantic slave trade, but many trades wreaking many different effects…” Indeed, Shumway’s first book and refurbished dissertation, The Fante and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, is a study of one such trade and the ethnolinguistic culture it allegedly produced. Shumway uses archives from England and Ghana, oral histories from Ghana, and secondary sources to tell the history of the coastal Fante during the long eighteenth century. Today, the Fante people constitute 2 million of Ghana’s population of 21 million, and historiography typically dates their origin to a paper government—the Fante Confederation—established in 1868 to resist British colonization. In this text, however, Shumway argues that the Confederation had a predecessor, a decentralized republic that she calls the “Coastal Coalition.” Her book uncovers the story of this coalition. Her thesis is that both the coalition and modern Fante identity cannot be understood without reference to three contexts that shaped Fanteland during the long eighteenth century: the unique legacy of the international gold trade; the imperial expansion of the Asante Kingdom in the forested interior; and the rise, peak, and fall of the transatlantic slave trade on the coast.[1]

The Fante occupied a region of southern or coastal Ghana from the Pra River to Accra. It is known today as Fanteland but was an 100-mile stretch of the central Gold Coast in the eighteenth century. Before the late-1600s, Fanteland imported slaves and exported gold, first to Western Sudan and then also to European traders. In this period, the region contained small, independent, and feuding kingships, all culturally and linguistically distinct. Then, Fanteland drastically changed its relationship to the Atlantic World by embracing slave exportation. What followed were wars in which one group—the Borbor Fante—conquered Fanteland to forge the coalition. Ostensibly, the coalition served three purposes: to help Fanteland people cope with heightened violence from the slave trade, to protect their privileges as brokers of that same trade, and to defend against conquest by the Asante, who were also their suppliers. The coalition matured by the 1750s and had a “golden age” until 1806/1807, when it was destroyed by an Asante invasion and the abolition of the British transatlantic slave trade. According to Shumway, the coalition was characterized by a lack of centralized political authority, a new warlord elite and priesthood, the dominance of an urban creole merchant class at the African-controlled port of Anomabo, a dissemination of the Fante language, and a transformation of pre-existing “social and cultural institutions,” especially a religious shrine of the Nananom Mpow and the commoner militia units called asafo.[2]

What are Shumway’s main contributions? First, she restores Anomabo in Gold Coast historiography. This port has been overshadowed by Cape Coast and Elmina, which performed much less business. Also, unlike Randy Sparks’ recent book on Anomabo (Where the Negroes Are Masters), Shumway balances internal (read: African) and external (read: European) influences. Meanwhile, she adheres to the thesis of John Thornton (Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World) that Europeans shaped yet had no power to control African commerce. Second, Shumway restores non-imperial peoples as well as non-slavers to the story of the Gold Coast, Africa, and the slave trade. She writes, “the majority of people in West and West Central Africa” resembled Fanteland because they lived in “decentralized or stateless societies” that were neither subjugated nor defined solely by their roles as captors and/or captives. Nonetheless, the literature has privileged empires like Asante. Third, Shumway restores the slave trade and the 1700s to national historiography, which has emphasizes Ghana’s earlier reputation as a gold exporter and later reputation as the birthplace of Pan-Africanism and decolonization. In this sense, Shumway picks up where Ray Kea left off in Settlements, Trade and Polities in the Seventeenth-Century Gold Coast.[3]

How persuasive is Shumway’s argument? While I am convinced that Fanteland was shaped by the three contexts mentioned in the first paragraph of this review, I am less convinced Shumway has accurately described the “Coastal Coalition.” Is it a network “of dependency and mutual obligation” and a “remarkable process of cultural adaptation and community formation,” as she argues, or more of a Fantee empire of territorial expansion to contrast with that of the Asante? Of course, this latter perspective is the traditional one. Understandably, there are problems with both of Shumway’s main categories of evidence. It is hard to know if European records are accurately describing a unified “Fantee nation,” or if they are projecting the idea on a diverse area. Conversely, with the oral histories, it is hard to know whether Shumway is correct to attribute their content to the eighteenth century rather than later periods, as others have done. Regardless, perhaps the book’s biggest weakness (in the opinion of this reviewer) is that Shumway makes a regional claim by giving the most space to one group (the Borbor Fante) and one port (Anomabo). Her brief and final chapter on the broad “social and cultural changes” in the region is certainly the most speculative, but it is also the most innovative and compelling.[4]


[1] Toby Green, The Rise of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade in Western Africa , 1300-1589 (Oxford: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 14; Rebecca Shumway, The Fante and the Transatlantic Slave Trade (Rochester: The University of Rochester Press, 2011), 2, 11-12, 153, 157.

[2] Ibid. 53, 108, 132.

[3] Ibid. 4, 8, 43.

[4] Ibid. 12, 88, 89-90.

Review of Kariann Akemi Yokota’s Unbecoming British

KARIANN AKEMI YOKOTA. Unbecoming British: How Revolutionary America Became a Postcolonial Nation. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. Pp. xii, 368. $36.95. Hardcover. ISBN: 0190217871.

In Unbecoming British, historian Kariann Akemi Yokota takes as her subject the historical process of American identity formation across the revolutionary and new national periods, or what she calls “America’s postcolonial period.” Specifically, she traces the process through which English colonists created an “American national character” out of their colonial inheritances. She does this through material, visual, and cultural history rather than political history. As Yokota observes, the transition of English subjects to American citizens was rife with “tensions and contradictions” that historians can study through both “lives of people engaged in missionary, scientific, and commercial pursuits” and “objects as varied as maps, imported and domestic artworks, and botanical prints.” Foremost among these tensions is the idea that, while elite American nationalists embraced aspects of their new identity such as their country’s raw materials, the superiority of whiteness, an increasingly democratic political structure, and a reflex for self-defensive intellectual arguments, “they could not relinquish their cultural attachments to the refined objects and courtly trappings of the British monarchy.” In short, while the political process of “unbecoming British” might have culminated with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, the cultural process was just beginning.[1] Continue reading “Review of Kariann Akemi Yokota’s Unbecoming British”

Review of James Sweet’s Domingos Alvares

JAMES H. SWEET. Domingos Álvares, African Healing, and the Intellectual History of the Atlantic World. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2011. Pp. xvii, 320. $30.00. Paperback. ISBN: 978-1-4696-0975-1.

The subject of James Sweet’s biography and self-described intellectual and “Black Atlantic” history, Domingos Álvares, was an African healer and diviner. He came from Naogon, a village of the Mahi confederacy in the West African region of Agonli Cové. This Gbe-speaking area was on the interior of the so-called “Slave Coast” in the early-eighteenth century and it is now part of central Benin. Álvares was probably born around 1710 to parents who were priests—or vodunon—of the Sakpata, a group of deities mainly associated with smallpox. When the expanding kingdom of Dahomey conquered Agonli Cové, its ruler, Agaja, sold these priests into the Middle Passage out of a fear for their ritual abilities. Such was the inciting incident in an Atlantic odyssey that took Álvares to two additional continents over the course of two decades.[1]

Álvares was an Atlantic globetrotter. Around 1730, he was shipped from the port of Jakin to Goiana in Pernambuco, northeastern Brazil, where he became a slave on a sugar plantation. Afterward, he was taken south, first to Recife and then to the streets of Rio de Janeiro, where he purchased his freedom and became a renowned healer with a congregation and disciples. Nonetheless, in 1742, he was accused of being a fetisher and sent to Lisbon, Portugal, to stand trial before the Inquisition Court. After imprisonment, torture, interrogation, and banishment in Castro Marim, a hamlet in the Algarve of southern Portugal, Álvares appeared before the court once again in 1747. Finally, he disappeared from the historical record sometime around 1749 after being ordered to Bragança in northern Portugal, the location of his second exile.[2]

In Domingos Álvares, Sweet has reconstructed this biography from many primary sources. He used oral traditions, censuses, slave trade database statistics, ethnographies, newspapers, maps, genealogies, colonial legal documents, parish records, and travel accounts. When these materials were rare, he extrapolated from secondary literature on pre-colonial Africa, the slave trade, anthropology, historical linguistics, and more. Regardless, his story would not have been possible without Inquisition transcripts. Foremost among these was a more than 600-page dossier in the Portuguese national archives, originally produced by the Holy Office during Álvares’ trials. This case file contains copies of Álvares’ confessions, some Fon-Gbe terms that suggest his African origins, and depositions from nearly four-dozen eyewitnesses.[3]

For Sweet, his Domingos Álvares is a model for overcoming one of Atlantic histories shortcomings—its inability to “accommodate African historical perspectives” on their own terms. Here he takes aim at the work of scholars like Ira Berlin, Linda Heywood, and John Thornton, who have defined Africans in the Atlantic World by the degree to which they were in dialogue with “European ideas and institutions.” These scholars are often uninterested in challenging “the boundaries of European empire and colonialism.” Instead, they seek to trace the Americanization of Africans, and so they emphasize when Africans speak European languages, read Enlightenment texts, dress in European clothes, or appeal to European institutions like the Catholic church or imperial Crown. In theory, Sweet embraces the premise of the “Atlantic creole,” to borrow the phrase of Berlin, as an individual whose power derives from their ability to adapt and cross cultural boundaries. However, Sweet demands that Africa be a more central component of this creolized identity.[4]

While Sweet sees Domingos Álvares as a model for critiquing a Eurocentric approach to Atlantic history, he also sees Álvares’ life as an embodied critique of European colonial ideologies in his own time. “Wherever he traveled,” writes Sweet, “Domingos offered this political discourse of health and healing as an alternative to imperial discourses.” Instead of his African culture being stripped by the social alienation of war and enslavement—as many scholars have argued—Álvares retained and used his native culture throughout his journey. Both his freedom and healing “shifted over time,” defying imperial categories in the process. For example, his healing crossed boundaries by appealing to slaves and freed people, reinforced and threatened colonial legitimacies, and wavered between the criminal and the blessed. Ultimately, the story climaxes in a confrontation between Álvares and his inquisitor in which Álvares is punished for daring to put “African divination and spirit possession on the same therapeutic plane as the rituals of the Catholic church.[5]

In sum, Domingos Álvares is the biography of an African intellectual who challenged European epistemologies, written by an historian who wants to challenge those epistemologies in the scholarship today. As such, Sweet is likely to be critiqued by empiricists for bending his evidence toward his interpretation, especially in moments where he reads Álvares’ intentions into the omissions of the Inquisition records, or when he takes what might be coerced testimony as honest recollection. Others will be uncomfortable when Sweet makes analytical leaps from African oral traditions that are two hundred years removed, or when he reduces Álvares to the level of an ambiguous yet politicized symbol, calling him “an exemplar of modernity but also its fiercest opponent.” But despite these predictable critiques, Sweet has set a bold and remarkable new standard for integrating Africa into the Atlantic. Many will be excited to see how this standard is taken forward, especially in those cases where there is no hefty inquisition file to draw upon.[6]


[1] James H. Sweet, Domingos Álvares, African Healing, and the Intellectual History of the Atlantic World (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2011), 5, 7, 14-15, 20, 24, 26.

[2] Ibid. 26, 129.

[3] Ibid. 2-4, 7.

[4] Ibid. 2, 4-5, 235 n4.

[5] Ibid. 6, 105, 177.

[6] Ibid. 233.

Review of Kristen Block’s Ordinary Lives in the Early Caribbean

KRISTEN BLOCK. Ordinary Lives in the Early Caribbean: Religion, Colonial Competition, and the Politics of Profit. Early American Places. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012. Pp. xiv, 312. $29.95. Paperback. ISBN: 978-0-8203-3868-2.

As Atlantic History has risen to popularity, historians like Lara Putnam and Rebecca Scott have posed a critical question. They have asked whether microhistory can help practitioners overcome some of the field’s most-common limitations, namely its tendency to silence voices of everyday people while emphasizing “Big Picture” changes across enormous geographic scopes. Kristen Block’s latest work, Ordinary Lives in the Early Caribbean, is an attempt to put that question into practice. Described as a “social microhistory,” Ordinary Lives takes as its subject religious change in the Caribbean over the long seventeenth-century. This timing allows Block to study the region as it transitioned from a primarily Catholic, Spanish world into an Anglo, Protestant world following Oliver Cromwell’s so-called Western Design.[1]

One characteristic of Atlantic History is that authors sample a portion of the Atlantic as a case study for the whole. This is true of Ordinary Lives, which takes Cartagena, Jamaica, Hispaniola, and Barbados for its Caribbean. Block divides her study into four parts that examine these locations in chronological order. Each revolves around the biographies of “everyday” people—the “ordinary lives” referenced in the title. These include a runaway slave from Cartagena, Colombia, named Isabel Criolla; a French-Calvinist servant to the Spanish governor of Jamaica named Nicolas Burundel; an English sailor to Hispaniola named Henry Whistler; and two enslaved people on a Quaker plantation in Barbados named Yaft and Nell. Of course, Block features many other figures—including more-standard characters like Sir Francis Drake and Bartolomé de las Casas—but they do not constitute the organizing principle of the text.[2]

Ordinary Lives has two purposes. First, Block wants “to portray with sympathy the stories of groups exploited and silenced by the expansion of early modern Atlantic colonialism and capitalism.” This largely determines the content and narrative of Ordinary Lives, which follows works like Daniel Richter’s Facing East from Indian Country and Natalie Zemon Davis’s The Return of Martin Guerre in utilizing the “the essential craft of the imagination” to re-construct the “hidden transcripts” of silenced actors. Such a thesis leads Block to test the boundaries of the profession to an increasing degree with each part. While Criolla’s struggle against slavery generated ample records in the Inquisition Courts, for instance, almost nothing survives about other people, like Yaft and Nell. In this way, Block uses microhistory to “read against the grain.”[3]

As her second purpose, Block argues that “the Caribbean was a central focus for the early modern shift from religion as a primary basis for political and social identity to that” of what we call race today. This goal determines the arc of Ordinary Lives. In short, as northern European powers achieved dominance, they introduced changes rooted in the Protestant Reformation. These included “toleration for international trade and competitive investment in slave-produced goods,” which ushered the Caribbean on a descent toward irreligion, “cynicism, hostility, and cruelty.” By supplanting Spanish Catholicism, newcomers closed traditional avenues for upward social mobility, hardened race, and created a characteristically brutal West Indian plantation regime. In this sense, Block’s work aligns with that of scholars like Jane Landers and María Elena Díaz, who have argued the Catholic Spanish colonies offered more “pathways to shape social relations” than their Protestant counterparts.[4]

With Ordinary Lives, Block traces the panoramic history of religious change in the Caribbean through intimate microhistories. Many will find this approach admirable; however, tensions between Block’s two purposes often create the impression that the reader has two different books. One rescues the voices of commoners from obscurity—revealing the creative ways they negotiated identities in the context of hegemonic structures like religion—and the other domesticates their voices in the service of countering the legacy of the Black Legend. At its weakest points, the goal of the second book overshadows that of the first, and characters whom we know little about—like Yaff and Nell—become tools for explaining “the solidification of racial boundaries.” However, both despite and because of these moments, Block’s Ordinary Lives has much to teach students of Atlantic history about the benefits and the limitations of micro-historical methodologies.[5]


[1] Lara Putnam, “The Study the Fragments/While: Microhistory and the Atlantic World, Journal of Social History, Vol. 39, No. 3 (Spring, 2006): 615-630; Rebecca J. Scott, “Small-Scale Dynamics of Large Scale Processes, The American Historical Review, Vol. 105, No. 2 (April, 2000): 472-479; Kristen Block, Ordinary Lives in the Early Caribbean: Religion, Colonial Competition, and the Politics of Profit (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012), 3-5, 16.

[2] Ibid. 230.

[3] Ibid. 234, 6.

[4] Ibid. 16, 238.

[5] Ibid. 3, 5, 10, 15, 89, 212.

Review of Death of a Notary by Donna Merwick

DONNA MERWICK. Death of a Notary: Conquest and Change in Colonial New York. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999. Pp. xvi, 304. $24.95. Paperback. ISBN: 0801487889.

What happens to a people when they are conquered by a foreign imperial power? How are their everyday lives and the ways in which they are remembered changed by the circumstances of their conquest? These questions lay at the heart of Donna Merwick’s engaging microhistory, Death of a Notary. Merwick’s text is a narrative that uses the life of a seventeenth-century Dutch notary—named Adriaen Janse van Ilpenda, or simply “Janse”—as a metaphor for exploring the effects of imperial conquest generally, and the transition of power from the Dutch to the English in colonial New York specifically. Overall, Merwick’s work is a testament to the saying that a writer’s choice of subject goes a long way toward dictating the success of their project. As a low-level civil servant who spent his career documenting the ambitions and grievances of a largely forgotten community during some of its most turbulent years, Janse is a historian’s treasure. His biography has the potential to teach us volumes about the long- and short-term effects of imperial conquest. Continue reading “Review of Death of a Notary by Donna Merwick”

Overview of Brown in the Windy City by Lilia Fernández

Lilia Fernández. Brown in the Windy City: Mexicans and Puerto Ricans in Postwar Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012. Pp. xii, 392. $30.00. Paperback. ISBN: 9780226244280.*

About the Author:

Lilia Fernández is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at Ohio State University. She obtained her PhD in Ethnic Studies from the University of California at San Diego in 2005. Brown in the Windy City (henceforth, BWC) is her revised dissertation and first book; the project was originally called “Latina/o Migration and Community Formation in Postwar Chicago: Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Gender, and Politics, 1945-1975;” and her committee chairs were Ramón A. Gutiérrez and Vicki L. Ruiz. Lastly, Fernández is a native Chicagoan who grew up at least partly in one of the areas that is the subject of her study, the Lower West Side neighborhood of Pilsen.


BWC is the first intertwined history of Puerto Rican and Mexican-American immigrant communities in postwar Chicago, from roughly 1942 to 1975. The work contextualizes the migration, community formation, racialization, and social activism of these groups during a tumultuous period of Chicago’s history. Overall, Fernández offers an intimate look into how two Spanish-speaking ethnic groups built their identities in a shared climate of racism, housing discrimination, deindustrialization, urban blight, gentrification, dislocation, urban renewal, and activism in a major, postwar American city.

Continue reading “Overview of Brown in the Windy City by Lilia Fernández”

Misunderstanding and Unity in LeAnne Howe’s “The Red Wars”

LEANNE HOWE. Evidence of Red: Poems and Prose. Cambridge: Salt Publishing, 2005. Pp. 101. £9.99. Hardback. ISBN: 9781844710621.

LeAnne Howe’s poem “The Red Wars” is a first-person narration of an anonymous indigenous woman’s encounters with three other Native Americans. Perhaps the piece is autobiographical, and so the narrator is also Howe. This conclusion is possible because both the narrator and Howe are identified as Choctaw Indians and the piece is written in a first-person perspective. The work is also a personal reflection, with the narrator looking back on three specific moments in her youth when she encountered other Native American peoples. It describes the narrator’s attempts to read the bodies and behaviors of these other Natives and come to an understanding of who they are and how they are all related. The structure of the poem is broken up into three parts, and each part represents an individual encounter marked by a different, unique personality. The first encounter occurs in Oklahoma with a Sioux Native named Thunderhawk. The second occurs in Texas with California Red Wing, a native man who is part Dakota and part Navajo. The third encounter also occurs in Texas with a Cherokee man named Jim or Jack.[1]

Continue reading “Misunderstanding and Unity in LeAnne Howe’s “The Red Wars””

Review of Robert Darnton’s The Great Cat Massacre

ROBERT DARNTON. The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History. New York: Basic Books, 1984. Pp. xix, 320. $17.99. Paperback. ISBN: 0-465-02700-8.

The Great Cat Massacre is the fourth and the most popular scholarly book written by the American cultural historian, academic librarian, and specialist of eighteenth-century France, Robert Darnton (b. 1939). The book is a neat compilation of six, chapter-length case-studies that Darnton calls “Episodes.” Each of these episodes uses a specific primary source as a point of departure for exploring the cultural landscape of Ancien Régime France between 1697 and 1784. The book is considered an example of how scholars can apply an anthropological methodology to existing source material. In this sense, Darnton is most concerned with looking at old documents in new ways—treating them as physical artifacts that serve as windows to foreign cultures, otherwise known as mentalités. As Darnton shows, this task requires a detailed contextual analysis of a given subject, alongside an acute reading of the particular source that has chosen as its representative. In the early 1980s, this process exemplified an emerging historical tradition that was—and indeed still is—known as Cultural History.  For this reason, Cat Massacre (either in whole or just its title chapter) is regularly assigned in both undergraduate and graduate Historiography classes across the country. Over thirty years later, the work is still an exemplar of Cultural History.

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Review of Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms

CARLO GINZBURG. The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 1980. Pp. xiv, 224. $22.95. Paperback. ISBN: 9781421409887. Originally published in Italian under the name Il formaggio e i vermi: Il cosmo di un mugnaio del ‘500 in 1976 by the editor Giulio Einaudi.

Special Note: This blog post is in honor of the Italian historian Carlo Ginzburg, who is coming to UC Davis on Monday, April 18, 2016, to talk as this year’s guest speaker at the Eugene Lunn Memorial Lecture Series. This is the Twenty-Fourth Annual installment of the series. The theme is “Reading History Against the Grain,” and the talk will take place in the Buehler Alumni Center from 4:10 to 5:30 pm, with a reception to follow. The event is free and open to the public.

In honor of Professor Ginzburg’s visit, I have decided to post a review I wrote of what is perhaps his most famous historical work, The Cheese and the Worms, when I was in my first year of the MA program at Loyola University Chicago. This paper was one of the very first book reviews that I ever wrote in graduate school. I submitted it on October 28, 2013, for a Historiography class taught by Professor John Pincince. I can still remember that I read Ginzburg’s entire book, from the first page to the last. As many of you know, The Cheese and the Worms is not a long book, so perhaps this is not nearly as impressive of a task as I am suggesting. Nonetheless, the point is that the work was captivating, and it had a profound impact on me. Although I was quite critical in my initial review, I look back upon the work with great fondness now. Since reading The Cheese and the Worms, microhistory has become one of my favorite historical fields. I hope that one day, I can achieve anywhere near the same delicate balance between the local and the global—the intimate and the transcendent—that Ginzburg has achieved here. Thanks for reading. Enjoy.

Lunn Lecture Picture

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Précis on Readings in Environmental History (Week Nine)

The Interconnectedness of Global Capitalism

ANNA LOWENHAUPT TSING. The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015. Pp. 352. $29.95. Hardback. ISBN: 9780691162751.

The reading for this week is about the relationships between human and non-human species in the context of global capitalism. The work under review is Mushroom at the End of the World. It is the third book written by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, a Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Mushroom is two things at once—one of them particular and one broad. First, Mushroom is an ethnographic analysis of the matsutake mushroom trade and its global supply chain. Second, it is a meditation on the nature of global capitalism, with a suggestion for a new ethics of capitalism that breaks from what Tsing describes as the lingering assumptions of the Enlightenment era. This new ethics of capitalism is based on a recognition of the interconnectedness of the world’s species. It is based on an acceptance of vulnerability, and a recognition of the “collaborative survival” of various “assemblages” that thrive amidst the “capitalist damage” of the postwar age. Overall, Tsing’s portrayal of our “entangled ways of life” is creative and inspiring, yet it rests on a strawman: an oversimplified depiction of Enlightenment capitalism as Man conquering Nature through “expectations of progress aimed toward collective advancement.”[1]

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Review of N.D.B. Connolly’s A World More Concrete: Real Estate and the Remaking of Jim Crow South Florida

Race and the Built Environment

N.D.B. CONNOLLY. A World More Concrete: Real Estate and the Remaking of Jim Crow South Florida. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2014. Pp. 376. $27.00. Paperback. ISBN: 9780226378428.

The reading for this week discusses the connection between race and the built environment. The work is A World More Concrete, the first book by Professor of History at John Hopkins University, N.D.B. Connolly. The book tells the story of the foundation, construction, and renovation of a “Jim Crow system” (called “American Apartheid” to encourage comparisons with South Africa; the author sees both as variations on colonialism) in the Greater Miami area from the founding of the city in the late 1890s to the aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement in the late 1960s. Concrete is a complex story about how a diverse and unlikely group of actors found a consensus around black inferiority and white popular sovereignty. Together, although often unwittingly and with few realistic alternatives, these people built a political structure for white supremacy around ideas of real estate, land use, and property rights. That structure survived the end of de jure segregation and has remained in place today, long after the Civil Rights Movement defeated Jim Crow.[1]

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A Political Scientist on the El Salvadoran Civil War: A Review of Elisabeth Jean Wood’s Insurgent Collective Action

ELISABETH JEAN WOOD. Insurgent Collective Action and Civil War in El Salvador. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Pp. 308. Paperback $39.99. ISBN: 9780521010504.

Summary. Insurgent Collective Action is the second book written by political scientist and international studies scholar, Elisabeth Jean Wood. The work is an analysis of rural, insurgent collective action among campesinos in “five case-study areas” of north-central and southeastern El Salvador before, during, and after that country’s brutal Civil War. In the text, Wood attempts to answer two main research questions: “Why did many poor people run extraordinarily high risks to support insurgency?” and “Why did others decline to do so?”[1]

Defining Concepts. Wood defines campesinos as “a person who engages in agricultural activities” but who is not the owner of a property responsible for hiring wage laborers. A campesino “may be a landless day laborer, a permanent wage employee, or a farmer working a small holding.” Wood defines “support for the insurgency” as “the provision to the insurgents of information and supplies beyond the contribution necessary to remain in contested areas, and the refusal to give information and supplies to government forces beyond the necessary contribution.” By “the insurgents,” Wood means the FMLN, a composite of five leftist guerilla factions that fought the Salvadoran Army.[2]

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Précis on Readings in Environmental History (Week Seven)

The Hidden Relationship between Electrical Energy and Settler Colonialism

ANDREW NEEDHAM. Power Lines: Phoenix and the Making of a Modern Southwest. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015. Pp. ix, 336. $21.00. Paperback. ISBN: 9780691139067.

The reading for this week addresses the relationship between settler colonialism and energy production in the twentieth century. The work under review is Power Lines, the revised dissertation and first book of Todd Andrew Needham, Associate Professor of History at New York University. Needham tells the story of rapid, postwar growth in the region of the American Southwest through an investigation of electrical energy. More specifically, Needham sees himself as expanding upon a standard, provincial metropolitan narrative—the story of urban centers sprawling outward, Frederick Jackson Turner-style, across a crabgrass frontier—to include a much wider region with many more actors. As such, Power Lines is primarily about the relationship between suburban development in Phoenix, Arizona, and corresponding energy production in the far-removed, Four Corners region of the United States in the three decades after WWII. Needham’s objective is to reveal “the intimate and unequal connections [that] power lines forged between electrical consumers in Phoenix and the people and landscape of the Navajo Nation.”[1]

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Précis on Readings in Environmental History (Week Six)

The History of Settler Colonialism in Hawaiʻi

NOENOE K. SILVA. Aloha Betrayed: Native Hawaiian Resistance to American Colonialism. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004. Pp. x, 260. Paperback. $21.95. ISBN:0-8223-3349-X.

JOHN WHITEHEAD, “Hawai’i: The First and Last Far West?” Western Historical Quarterly 23, 2 (May 1992): 153-177.

RUTH OLDENZIEL, “Islands: The United States as a Networked Empire,” 13-42, in Gabrielle Hecht, ed., Entangled Geographies: Empire and Technopolitics in the Global Cold War. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2003. $32.00. Paperback. ISBN: 9780262515788.

The readings for this week discuss the contested history of American settler colonialism in the Pacific islands of Hawai’i. Historian Ruth Oldenziel, in her chapter contribution to the edited volume Entangled Geographies, sets the stage for this discussion by analyzing the generally overlooked, historical role of overseas island possessions in the formation of American empire. Oldenziel argues that far-flung, peripheral islands like Hawai’i became “nodes in exclusionary, global-spanning technical systems closely connected to the military hardware of a networked empire.” To put it more simply, islands played “a central role” in the history of US imperial expansion. Yet island possessions are unique territories because “they render US power invisible to the world.” Indeed, most Americans are completely unaware of the extent to which the United States controls overseas island possessions. Despite their minuscule size in terms of acreage, these “US [overseas] territories are the largest of the post-colonial era” in terms of population.[1]

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