Michaela Kleber and Hannah Bailey, both graduate students in History at the College of William & Mary, offer their take on the OI’s recent “Emerging Histories of the Early Modern French Atlantic.”
Emotions run high for graduate students at conferences. On the one hand, it’s thrilling to hear the newest, most innovative research in your field and have the opportunity to connect with colleagues from around the world who have similar research interests. On the other, there’s always the underlying fear that someone (especially an accomplished scholar with decades of experience under their belt) is asking the same research questions that you are, or that you’ll ask something foolish and become a pariah in the field. Fortunately for us, and anyone else considering a research project that could be broadly defined as “French Atlantic,” historians of the French Atlantic prove to be some of the most generous in academia and, if the recent “Emerging Histories of the Early Modern French Atlantic” conference is any indication, there are a multitude of new, compelling research questions to go around.
During the course of the conference, attendees heard papers that covered a wide range of thematic, geographical, and chronological foci. Several panels raised questions about the relationships between Africans in the French state, even suggesting that African states made the French one rather irrelevant in many contexts. Other scholars asked about the legal logistics of the French empire, exploring how everyone from corsairs to procurators to convicts shaped French colonies and colonization efforts. How did communication work in French Atlantic world? What signs, texts, and religious languages bound people together, and how did these empires of communication form alliances? What happens if we mix the French Atlantic world with Baltic, Indian Ocean, or central European ones? How do those geographic shifts challenge our current historical gaze? What did debt and credit worthiness mean in a global French context? In terms of material culture and architecture, what did the French Atlantic look like and why? What economic, patronage, and familial networks held this early modern world together, and how did they work? How did individuals formally and informally negotiate race, enslaved status, and identity? When is an Atlantic framework most useful, and when might we get a clearer picture by broadening or narrowing our historical framework? What can we do to facilitate online research about the French Atlantic? How can we teach the French Atlantic most effectively? From these questions, and the countless others that historians raised during the panels and coffee breaks of this conference, it is clear that this is an exciting time to be a French Atlanticist, and graduate students and established scholars alike should take note!
Indicative of the vitality and good will in this field were two workshops that took place during the conference that were geared towards exposing a wider audience to the French Atlantic. In one workshop, scholars discussed their ideas for a research website that will serve as a starting point for online research on the French Atlantic. The website, a collaborative project created in conjunction with the Omohundro Institute, will facilitate research for a wide audience of scholars and make French Atlantic research that much more attractive and available. In a second workshop, scholars shared ideas for integrating the French Atlantic into general history courses and their successes and worries about seminars that take the French Atlantic as their focus. With scholars from a wide variety of educational institutions in the United States, Canada, and Europe, their diverse experiences offered valuable advice for two graduate students just beginning their teaching career. It certainly speaks to the generosity and investment of French Atlanticists, that they would give up their few free moments in a weekend completely packed with panels to discuss how to further the field.
At the end of weekend, some of the questions we were still asking ourselves were “Why the French?” What is that je ne sais quoi that makes the French unique, both historically and historiographically? What makes the French Atlantic different from other Atlantics, and where do we draw the boundary between the French Atlantic and everywhere else? What the conversations at the Emerging Histories of the Early Modern French Atlantic conference made clear is that this field is marked by openness to such questions and a cooperative quest to better understand the workings of history in general.