A few weeks back I had the great pleasure of attending FEEGI’s biennial conference in New Orleans. Following on from a few days spend in the most mind-numbingly dull city on the planet (DC’s Capitol Hill could do with a cafe or two, block after block of neo-classical office buildings just doesn’t do it for me) the charm of the South was easy to appreciate. Landing to realise I was there for the start of Mardi Gras was also a nice surprise. As a city, it represents much of what global history is meant to be about. With a complex history built on European overseas expansion and its associated atrocities, it was an excellent location to delve into an entangled, global past.
Like all ‘world history’ events, some presentations did little more than fetishise the European experience of new worlds, revelling in detailed descriptions of the exotic and laughing at the simplicity of European understanding. At times, these anecdotes left something to be desired, the depth of analysis limited to simply stating that the exotic was a popular early modern trope used to sell books more than seriously educate fellow Europeans. It may have been meant ironically, but with so much modern scholarship sold through the promise of exotic tales and sexual promiscuity, is any historian really in the best position to condemn the fetishes of authors past?
Of course, beyond these anecdotes were some excellent presentations and updates on current projects. The work of younger historians (a term not intended to be patronising – I was the baby of the conference at the wee age of 26) on display was encouraging and interesting for the ‘global’ historian. These included topics as wide ranging as Matt Brannan’s (Tulane) work on voodoo practices in New Orleans in the eighteenth century to Jon Gebhardt’s (Yale) analysis of the Chinese impact on Portuguese and Spanish trading networks in the Pacific or Rebecca Simon’s new interpretation of piratical sovereignty in the Atlantic world.
Personally, and selfishly, I found the presentations of Laura Perille (Brown) and Kate Mulry (NYU) particularly fascinating. Laura’s work explores the relations between England and the Ottoman Empire throughout the early modern period, with case studies exploring the relationship through cultural engagement. Her presentation brought to life the baptism of Rigep Dandulo, part of an Ottoman embassy from the Barbary Coast, and explored how baptising the Turk was a common image in England, used to highlight the strength of different religious perspectives. In this tale, Rigep, a Greek, was given the heritage of the famous Danalo family from Venice, while representing both the Turk and the Moore in diplomatic proceedings. In addition to the conclusions drawn in Laura’s work about the role of the Turk in England, it’s a great example of the ‘global’ lives of some early modern individuals, and the transnational nature of their identity.
The second presentation that really struck me was Kate’s interpretation of the role of gardens, and horticultural exchange, in the Atlantic world towards the end of the seventeenth century. A fine topic by itself, particularly considering the growing interest in this field in England during the period, Kate’s work takes it a step further by including the East India Company in her analysis. Specifically, the questions is asked as to why the Company granted the Crown access to their spices and other East India goods as part of a royal initiative to re-plant them in Barbados. Was this a simple bribe by the Company? Was it part of an English endeavour to pacify nature? Was it, as this paper suggested, the first stage of an East India Company plan/plot/scheme/strategy to expand their interests into the Caribbean? It might be a step to far to say that gardens reveal London’s merchants’ secret plan to take over the world, but there is certainly a lot more for us to understand around topics of early modern science, trade and Empire.
Finally, with the hard work done (and tweeted!), business cards exchanged, and new friendships conceived, there was little to do but head out into the weird, wonderful world of a proper Southern party…