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October 15, 2009
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Common-place uncovers the truth about pirates and former slaves

Worcester, MA—Common-place, the online history journal, reconciles images from seventeenth and nineteenth century print media with the truth in an article that contrasts the reality of pirates with their swashbuckling reputation and another that tracks down the origin of a smear against the leader of an historic slave rebellion.

Carolyn Eastman's article, "Shivering Timbers," examines Bucaniers, an octavio volume that originated the swashbuckling image of pirates whose wanton attacks plagued eighteenth-century European trade. Bucaniers, first published in 1678, was so popular that it was revived in the 1740s for publication through the end of the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth by presses on both sides of the Atlantic.

"Bucaniers offered an insider's view of dramatic sieges, torture…and freewheeling pirate life," Eastman notes. "In stark contrast were the recent photos and videos of the Somalis pirates in their improbably small motorboats."

While the images of the eighteenth century pirates were dashing and romantic, the Somalis t-shirts and slight frames only exaggerated their third-world poverty. However, the pirate story isn't over yet, Eastman adds. "We can look forward to its gradual incorporation into a tradition of representing pirates as seductive anti-heroes—men and women who have evoked that powerful combination of fantasy, revulsion, and identification so successfully for three hundred years."

Joseph Yannielli's article, "Cinque, the Slave Trader," examines what happened to the leader of the famed Amistad slave rebellion after the former slaves returned to live in Africa. A disparaging remark in a memoir by the director of the mission where Cinque and other former slaves settled seemed to implicate Cinque in the slave trade.

Yannielli's research determined that Cinque became a conventional merchant, probably trading rum and tobacco rather than slaves and it was his failure to conform to the missionaries' ideals that caused him to be criticized. Cinque's struggles, Yanielli notes, highlight the harsh realities that he and the other survivors faced upon their return.

"Even after winning their Supreme Court case, the Amistad veterans could not escape the shadow of slavery… their story highlights the enduring and insidious reach of the slave trade," he writes.

Michael F. Robinson's article, "Why We Need a New History of Exploration," contrasts the iconic American explorers, Lewis and Clark, with the Prussian polymath Alexander von Humboldt. Humboldt's exploration of Central and South America from 1799 to 1804 gave him rock star status during his lifetime, though he's barely recognized today.

Lewis and Clark, on the other hand, have become the symbolic touchstone for every kind of modern expedition, from NOAA to NASA, Robinson notes. "They serve not merely as the ornaments of history but as pieces of evidence in a specific argument—that expensive expeditions deserve funding because the will to explore is a part of our national character. As this line of thinking goes, exploration is something that we have to do in order to be true to our human nature."

Robinson surmises that Humboldt might view space exploration as "a lesson about attaining self-knowledge as much as attaining knowledge about the world." The vision of humans walking upon the cold dust of Mars would have thrilled him," Robinson writes. "That Americans, his favorite people, would have to pay so much to bring this vision to life, I suspect, would have given him pause."

Writing in "Common Reading," Mark Peterson's article, "The Founding Fathers and their Dysfunctional Families" reviews several movies set during the American Revolution and concludes that"… books and our lectures are actually better than movies at depicting and explaining what we can know about the past, because as a genre, they are better aligned with the limits of our knowledge about the past. If we don't know, nothing in the genre compels us to speculate, to make something up."

In a movie, Peterson points out, "Jefferson's clothes cannot be colorless, and no one would believe a silent Franklin. For this reason, historical movies are better when, as in 1776 or The Devil's Disciple, they call attention to their own stylized qualities—to the fact that they are inventing and dramatizing in just the way that movies do, in a thoughtful and coherent way—rather than pretend, as John Adams does, that they are not."

In "Object Lessons," Yvette Piggush contrasts the relic collection of Philadelphia historian John Fanning Watson with his and others' narratives. Watson's collection of little objects such as arrowheads, buttons, fabric scraps, and locks of hair was contained in a box, constructed around 1823. He documented the significance of nearly all of the objects in the box—including the wood of the box itself—by attaching paper labels.

Piggush notes that by blending art and science into a physical object, Watson's relic box ultimately connects history to the "fancy" style of many other contemporary material objects that also sought to engage both the intellect and the senses.

Watson's and others relic collections, Piggush observes, "challenge the dominance of narrative in the production of historical knowledge. The fragments cultivate physical delight, emotional attachment, and creative play to make people care about the past."

In "Ask the Author," Stephen Mihm's article, "Con Games" compares Bernard Madoff's Ponzi scheme with nineteenth-century swindles and land frauds. Fueling each of the speculative booms that have hit this country over the centuries, Mihm writes, is the spirited pursuit of what historian Jackson Lears called "something for nothing," which derives its power from dreams of overnight riches and wealth without work.

Mihm notes that "anyone who thinks that we've seen the last of booms and busts in our own lifetime—much less confidence games large and small—should read what David Mitchell wrote of the mania for land speculation in the 1850s. 'The whole domestic history of the time, which ended in the panic, affords a striking illustration of the … tendency to seize upon some project or idea, to dwell upon it, inflate it, make it into a mania, run it into the ground … and then forget all about it.'"

In "Tales from the Vault's" "The Haunted Castle," Anne Farrow discovers the role Connecticut played in the slave trade and visits Bunce Island off the coast of Sierra Leone where slaves were held before being loaded onto ships bound for America. It was a fortuitous find, a 64-year-old newspaper clipping uncovered by a fellow researcher that detailed acquisition of the logs of slave ships from the island bound for Connecticut. Another lucky encounter with a researcher who fully understood the significance of the find eventually led to a trip to Bunce Island. There, Farrow saw for herself "a place of terror and suffering and the grief of exile."

In "The Common School," Jim Cullen's article, "Blogging with Pickles," describes his introduction to blogging and his unwitting debut as a chronicler of classroom gossip.

"The focus of my posts was a U.S. history survey," Cullen writes. "I began to see that the mere knowledge I was blogging could conceivably have an impact on what a student might or might not say in the classroom (one student wrote to tell me of reading the blog and hoping to surface on it)."

Cullen notes that until he was actually participating himself, "I don't think I understood the extent to which activities like blogging and social networks like Facebook (which I use to promote the blog to friends and former students) have invisibly reached into the traditionally entrenched space of the classroom, a reach that administrators, politicians, and reformers can only envy. These new developments haven't necessarily subverted traditional teaching—or replaced old-fashioned forms of gossip that certainly require no Wi-Fi access—but we ignore them, or uncritically embrace them, at our peril."

Writing in "Publick Occurrences," Jeff Pasley's blog post, "Thinking Like an Early American Historian" compares the recent publicity about Tufts University's prohibition on sex in dorm rooms when roommates are present with the colonial New England practice of bundling.

Bundling was a courtship custom where unmarried young men and women slept together, bundled up in blankets on a bed. "Lest it seem too sexy," Pasley writes, "a board was put in-between the two and the girl could be encased in a stout bag to protect her virtue. Mom and Dad (and presumably others) often stayed in the room, just like a Tufts roommate.

Pasley notes that rural New Englanders did not regard bundling as risqué at all. "In fact, as recounted in Rev. Samuel Peters' General History of Connecticut, Yankees placed bundling a good deal higher on the moral scale than the new-fangled, citified courtship practice of sitting on a French sofa."

Book reviews in the current issue of Common-place include the following: Corey Brooks' review of Disunion!: The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859 by Elizabeth R. Varon; Michael A. LaCombe's review of Brothers among Nations: The Pursuit of Intercultural Alliances in Early America, by Cynthia Van Zandt; Gregory Nobles' review of Spirits of the Air: Birds and American Indians in the South by Shepard Krech III; Samuel J. Redman's review of This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War by Drew Gilpin Faust and Tim Roberts' review of Reign of Terror in America: Visions of Violence from Anti-Jacobinism to Antislavery by Rachel Hope Cleves.

About Common-place

Common-place is a common place for exploring and exchanging ideas about early American history and culture. A bit friendlier than a scholarly journal, a bit more scholarly than a popular magazine, Common-place speaks—and listens—to scholars, museum curators, teachers, hobbyists, and just about anyone interested in American history before 1900. Common-place readers can join in the discussion of any of the journal's features by visiting the "Common-place Coffeeshop," a message board on the website. Common-place is sponsored by the American Antiquarian Society and the University of Oklahoma Department of History.

About the American Antiquarian Society

The American Antiquarian Society (AAS) is a learned society and independent research library, specializing in all aspects of American history and culture through 1876. Founded in 1812 by the patriot printer and publisher Isaiah Thomas, AAS is the third oldest historical organization in the United States and the first to take the whole nation as its scope. The AAS library is the preeminent repository of pre-twentieth-century American printed materials and related manuscript and graphic arts materials in the world. The Society also sponsors an array of programs to encourage the use of its collections and to foster a greater understanding of American history. The main office for Common-place is at AAS, 185 Salisbury St., Worcester, MA 01609-1634; telephone (508) 755-5221.

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