Christopher Dietrich and Yuko Miki, who are conducting research as part of the O’Connell Initiative for the History of Capitalism.
Photo and video by Taylor HaBe prepared to find material you might not expect, and always be skeptical of your sources.
Those were just a few of the suggestions two Fordham history professors shared at a lunch seminar, where they shared preliminary findings from ongoing research projects.
The seminar, which featured Christopher Dietrich, Ph.D., and Yuko Miki, Ph.D., both associate professors of history, was held on Dec. 4 in the Walsh Library’s O’Hare Special Collections room at Rose Hill. The informal lunchtime gathering of scholars and doctoral students was sponsored by the O’Connell Initiative for the Global History of Capitalism, which aims to broaden the ways in which capitalism is understood.
The History of U.S. Energy Policy
Dietrich, the author of Oil Revolution: Anticolonial Elites, Sovereign Rights, and the Economic Culture of Decolonization (Cambridge University Press, 2017), spoke about a project he’s been working on about U.S. foreign oil policy and domestic culture in the 20th century.
Talking to students about his research on oil policy during that time period, he said the common thread of the era is policymakers’ feelings of vulnerability and insecurity.
He broke the century into three eras. From 1910-45, the United States rose as a global power. The years between 1945-1973, on the other hand, were a period in which temporary measures adopted during World War II became permanent.
“That permanency of a total economy always being protected by an advanced military posture is something I’m concerned with,” he said.
From 1973 to the present day, he said American power in the Middle East has been less focused on infrastructure, and more focused on finance.
“Within that broad story, there are a million smaller stories, and part of what the O’Connell Initiative allowed me to do was dig in a bunch places for those smaller stories,” he said.
One of the archives he visited was the George H.W. Bush Library and Museum in College Station, Texas. Although he was primarily interested in Bush’s thought process leading up to the 1990 war with Iraq, he also looked at the journal Bush kept when he was ambassador to the United Nations from 1971to 1973.
“I like to do personal history and intellectual and ideological work on the background of actors before they become principal movers in the story, and I was interested just to see if Bush said anything about third-world solidarity, sovereignty at the time,” he said.
The Unspoken Truths of Slavery
Miki, the author of Frontiers of Citizenship: A Black and Indigenous History of Postcolonial Brazil (Cambridge University Press, 2018), shared the ways she is expanding her research into slavery the Iberian Atlantic with visits to archives in Lisbon, Portugal, among other places.
Slavery that took place even after it was outlawed is a good place to center a critique of capitalism, because England and the United States, which were ascendant at the time, could not have made progress without it.
“So many of the narratives about slavery that we study are of the 19th century as the age of emancipation. It’s a very liberal triumphalist narrative where we all seem to be forming a western world where liberty triumphs over slavery,” she said, noting that in fact, a staggering amount of illegal slavery still took place at the time.
The Mary B. Smith, one of the last illegal slave ships to be captured on January 20, 1865, is a perfect example, she said. Brazil had won its independence in 1822, but its legitimacy rested on England’s recognition that it had abolished slavery. The capture of the Mary B. Smith was celebrated in newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean as proof of this change.
To understand Brazilian slavery, one needs to include its former colonial master, Portugal. When Miki did research there, she found what purported to be a manifest from the Mary B. Smith, with the names, ages, and genders of the 500 slaves who were “liberated” when the ship was captured.
“At first you think, ‘I have a list of the people on the ship. Maybe there’s a potential to write a history of these people.’” she said.
“But then you look at when they died: the 3rd of February, the 4th of February. Every person is dead. What do you do with a list of people who are liberated, but are already dead?”
The list was beautifully crafted, even though it detailed horrific suffering. That was the first clue that there was more to the list than met the eye, she said. Then there was the issue of the timing of the list’s creation, shortly before the slaves all perished.
“If you’re dying, you don’t speak Portuguese, you’re terrified, you’re barely alive, how does someone create this list?” she said.
Miki determined that a Brazilian official made up names and ages for real people who had died on the ship. By doing so, she said, he hoped to demonstrate that the country was serious about ending slavery, even it meant acknowledging those who were already dead.
It shows why scholars of capitalism need be more skeptical of the way they rely on merchant ledgers as a resource, she said. Sometimes, an “archive of liberation,” such as the one she discovered, is merely a mask for unimaginable agony.
“You need to account for the suffering. You can’t just make it a footnote to the success of antislavery,” she said.
The O’Connell Initiative in the Global History of Capitalism, which is supported by a gift Robert J. O’Connell, FCRH ’65, brings together scholars of every aspect of capitalism, from its earliest medieval manifestations to its global reach today. In addition to groundbreaking research, it supports lectures, debates, and workshops.
Grace Yen Shen, Ph.D., associate professor of Chinese history and director of graduate studies in history, said the monthly O’Connell Initiative gatherings have the given members of her department a new way to connect with each other.
The word “global” is often used to reference phenomena such as global warming, she said, or it’s used as a code word for non-western countries. In contrast, the initiative has helped history scholars see how European or American subjects like the Crusades or the American Revolution are very much part of a larger, worldwide system of monetary exchange.
For students, there’s also real value in hearing faculty talk about how they work in archives, she said.
“We’re not just saying, ‘Here are my results.’ We’re saying, ‘This is a process. You might be worried about whether your process is going well, but we’re doing the same thing,’” she said.