Refugees and Revolution in the Atlantic World – An Interview with Jan C. Jansen

In October 2020, the five-year research project “Refugees and Revolution in the Atlantic World (1770s–1820s)” started. The project will undertake a systematic exploration of the period as an age of refugee movements, a period in which political migrants and their movements became a defining feature. The project is funded by a prestigious ERC Starting Grant and was conceptualized by Jan C. Jansen, until recently a research fellow at the German Historical Institute Washington DC and now a Junior Professor at the University of Duisburg-Essen. We talked to him about his upcoming research, its origins and its goals.

Your new project “Refugees and Revolution in the Atlantic World (1770s–1820s)” started this month and will run for five years: Can you briefly explain what this project is about, and which questions it will try to answer?

Detail of Benjamin West’s “The Reception of the American Loyalists by Great Britain in Year 1783” seen in the background of West’s portrait of John Eardley Wilmot | Public Domain

The “age of revolutions,” that is the half-century of political and social upheaval that rocked the Atlantic world in the decades around 1800, has been often considered a crucial, and glorious, moment – as the origin of Western political modernity that gave rise to new notions of sovereignty, citizenship, and political participation. But it was also closely connected with the emergence of political refugees as a mass phenomenon. The political and violent conflicts of the era put well over a quarter million people on the move. Based on case studies from the Caribbean and the American continent, the project explores the role these refugee movements played in major transformations during these decades: first, the reshaping of the terms of belonging to political communities (citizenship, resp. subjecthood); second changing practices of welfare and early forms of humanitarianism; third, the shaky and shifting boundaries between freedom and slavery; and fourth, the emergence of exile as a transnational, or rather: trans-imperial field of politics. In doing so, the project also seeks to recast the Caribbean as one of the world’s major receiving and transit regions for refugees at the time, and to combine systematically the nascent research field of refugee history with Atlantic history.

You just mentioned that the project focusses on exile and refugee movements in an explicitly Atlantic perspective – for anyone who hasn’t been in contact with the concept yet, what does it mean to work on the Atlantic world, and what are the benefits of such an “Atlantic perspective”?

Atlantic history grew out of a number of separate historiographic strands that had focused on comparisons and interactions across the Atlantic Ocean, in particular the history of the Atlantic slave trade and the plantation complex, and comparative imperial history. In US academia, in particular – but also in the UK, France, the Netherlands and Spain – since the 1980s, Atlantic history has become a prominent alternative way of framing history beyond the nation-state. “Atlanticist” approaches certainly helped prepare the ground for the transnational and global turn of the early 2000s. “Atlanticist” scholars conceive the Atlantic Ocean as a zone of interaction between the Americas, Europe and Africa that was integrated by a variety of economic, cultural, social, political, intellectual and environmental relations and exchanges. In comparison with the better-known Braudelian notion of the Mediterranean, the Atlantic Ocean is much vaster and much more diverse. Scholars chose very different ways of doing Atlantic history, from micro-studies of particular places to sweeping comparative panoramas. For the project, an Atlantic history captures best the center of gravity of refugee movements during this period. These movements were enmeshed with broader systems of involuntary migration that shaped the Atlantic world: the movements of convicts, deportees, and enslaved people.

You plan to set your project’s findings from the Atlantic World into a global history context: why do you plan to do so and what will this context contribute to your project?

Vue de l’incendie de la ville du Cap Français, arrivé le 21 juin 1793 vieux style, Peint d’après nature par J.L. BOQUET, Présenté à la convention nationale, 1795, Musée d’Aquitaine, Bordeaux.

In recent years, Atlantic history approaches have faced criticism as being some sort of American parochialism or NATO historiography. While this criticism may not be entirely fair, it is not completely unwarranted either. Early proponents, such as David Armitage, have begun to see Atlantic history as the least innovative branch of the booming field of oceanic history. Global historians, in particular, have faulted a tendency to treat the “Atlantic world” as a self-containing unity and to insulate it from external connections. The topic of refugees and exiles gives us an excellent opportunity to recalibrate the relationship between Atlantic and global history perspectives. The Atlantic basin was certainly the center of gravity of political refugee movements in the late 18th and early 19th century, but these movements also reached far beyond. Such a broader perspective is even more important if we consider that political refugees at this period were closely intertwined with other forms of involuntary migration. These are the guiding concerns that initiated a collaborative book project I have been engaged in with a group of a dozen specialists on forced migrations around the world during the revolutionary era. The book manuscript is at this moment coming together, so the Atlantic Exiles team will certainly benefit from the fruits of this other highly productive collaboration.

Speaking more practically now: Your project has a very comprehensive scope which will require both multi-lingual and multi-site research: What are the specific challenges of that, what experience have you gained working with these challenges in your career so far and how can one tackle such an enormous task?

Research of this scope can only be realistically done as a team effort. At least three other researchers will join the project team and work on a series of subprojects. A major challenge will be to make sure that team members can communicate across their different subprojects and work on the same set of problems, while enjoying enough wiggle room for excellent individual scholarship. Both during my doctoral studies and as a postdoc, I was involved in similar research teams at the University of Konstanz, and at the GHI Washington I headed the global and transregional history research unit. Both contexts provide me with quite a number of strategies of how to hold collaborative research projects together.

For the project as a whole and for each team member, archival research will be a major concern. All four sub-projects are geared towards challenging archival work. The team members will need to conduct systematic research in Caribbean, European, and North and South American collections, and they will face a rather scattered and fragmented historical record. Judging from my own work experience in about 60 archives on three continents – including in many of the important collections for “Atlantic Exiles” – I am optimistic that these risks can be managed, and that they will even prove an asset. The ERC grant provides us with unique resources to undertake such sprawling archival research. With some team effort, tenacity, and a bit of luck the project will be able to reassemble a body of sources that will allow exciting new insights into the period. The biggest unknown currently is the covid-19 pandemic. Many of the countries that hold important collections for the project have been hit hard by it.

And finally, having just recently left the GHI Washington to take up your new position: Do you think your time at the institute potentially shaped your thoughts and ideas on the history of migration, movement and mobility and if so, how?

The GHI has been my home institution for the past six years. With its vibrant discussions, events and publications, the institute is an intellectual powerhouse, and the project idea as a whole took shape there. Early on, colleagues and people affiliated with the institute encouraged me to go bold and lend me generous support to develop the project further. I came to the institute as someone who had worked for many years on North Africa and the Mediterranean world of the 19th and 20th centuries. The GHI offered me unique opportunities to establish myself in what were for me completely unfamiliar scholarly contexts: the Atlantic world, in particular the Caribbean of the late-18th and early-19th centuries, and refugee history. The institute brought me closer, quite literally, to many of the relevant collections and to leading academic communities. GHI members are invited to actively shape the institute’s scholarly agenda and networks, and this helped me gain visibility in these research fields. But above all, I profited tremendously from the close and generous collaboration with my colleagues, fellow researchers, but also editors, event managers, librarians, and I will miss them a lot.


 

This project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No 849189).

 


Jan C. Jansen was a research fellow at the GHI Washington from 2014-2020 and just started as a Juniorprofessor (Assistant Professor) at the University Duisburg-Essen. His main research interests concern the comparative history of the European colonial empires and decolonization with a particular focus on North Africa, the Mediterranean, and the Atlantic World. Prior to working at the GHI Washington, he was a lecturer and research fellow at the University of Konstanz and held visiting scholar positions at the George Washington University, Georgetown University, the Institut de Recherche sur le Maghreb Contemporain in Tunis, and the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. He is the author of ”Erobern und Erinnern: Symbolpolitik, öffentlicher Raum und französischer Kolonialismus in Algerien 1830–1950“ (2013) and co-author, with Jürgen Osterhammel, of “Kolonialismus: Geschichte, Formen, Folgen“ (2012) and of “Decolonization: A Short History” (Princeton University Press, 2017). He is currently engaged in a major project on refugee movements during the Atlantic age of revolutions (1780s-1820s), for which he has been awarded a Starting Grant by the European Research Council (ERC). For more information on the project, visit its website.


Citation: Jan C. Jansen, Refugees and Revolution in the Atlantic World – An Interview with Jan C. Jansen, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 03.11.2020, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/25111.


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