Book on Seafaring Bermuda Slaves Wins Award

November 10, 2010

1eye of the tradeThe first ever social and cultural account of 18th century Bermuda – and the first book to explore the unique ties between black and white Bermudian mariners whose seafaring exploits aboard the island’s cedar sloops opened a new chapter in Atlantic maritime history – has won a top academic prize in the US.

University of Rochester historian Michael Jarvis has won the 2010 James A. Rawley Prize in Atlantic History for his book “The Eye of All Trade: Bermuda, Bermudians and the Maritime Atlantic World, 1680-1783″. The honour is given to a single recipient each year by the American Historical Association, the country’s premier scholarly organisation for historians.

The Rawley Prize recognises a work of outstanding scholarship and literary merit that explores aspects of the Atlantic world before the 20th century. It will be presented to Mr. Jarvis in January during the association’s annual meeting in Boston.

Writing for the selection committee, Mia Bay, a professor of history at Rutgers University, called the work “Atlantic history at its best.” She lauded the study for bringing to light “the far-flung worlds of Bermuda’s free and enslaved seafaring men and their families,” and for “illuminating the many, and at times unexpected, ties of empire.”

Published this past April by the University of North Carolina Press, “In the Eye of All Trade” was greeted by scholars as “inspired” and a “signal achievement.” The study, wrote Georgetown University historian Alison Games, “will make it impossible for historians to ignore the island any longer.”

The book explores the social and economic history of 18th-century Bermuda through the eyes of the island’s seafarers. Jarvis takes readers aboard small Bermudian sloops and follows white and enslaved sailors throughout the British North American and Caribbean colonies. He shows how these sailors and slaves shuttled cargoes between ports, raked salt, harvested timber, salvaged shipwrecks, hunted whales, captured prizes, and smuggled contraband.

In the process, Mr. Jarvis details the unique character of maritime slavery, revealing dimensions of slaves’ living and working conditions beyond the plantation. He also documents how Bermuda’s small family-owned ships helped to link together the economies of the British colonies in “significant but underappreciated” ways and how those vibrant trade relationships were disrupted by the American Revolution and ultimately ended with the creation of an independent United States.

Based on two decades of research, “In the Eye of All Trade” draws on a wealth of historical evidence, from the historian’s traditional tools – archives and documents – to less conventional sources – folklore, architecture, food, and “recovered experiences.”

“I am a firm believer in ‘experiential’ history,” Jarvis explains. He advocates exploring the sites and, whenever possible, engaging in the same activities as one’s historical subjects. To immerse himself in colonial life, he has worked as a blacksmith in a historic village, raked salt in the Turks Islands, and visited ruined sugar mills – experiences he credits with providing deeper insights into the life of his subjects.

His work is also informed by more than a decade of archaeological field work. This past June, he led a small field team to Smith’s Island, Bermuda, where they located more than a dozen archeological sites. The experience gave him “some inkling of the island as the “Sea Venture’s” shipwrecked castaways would have found it in 1609 in its original wild state.”

For this book, Mr. Jarvis lived onboard a traditional wooden schooner in 1998 for about 18 weeks, sailing in the wake of the traders he chronicles. “I experienced the dynamics of shipboard life on a small vessel -– standing watch in all weather, monotonous diet, the hard work of raising anchor and setting sail,” says Jarvis. “I also came to appreciate the lack of privacy and personal space, the interpersonal camaraderie and tensions among shipmates, the sense of freedom when stepping ashore and, personally for me, the hardship of being parted from my family.”

But reliving the traditional seafaring life was not all drudgery, Mr. Jarvis admits. Like his historical subjects, he dove on shipwrecks, found mahogany trees in the thick woods of Mona Island, swam with turtles at East Plana Cay, and enjoyed “the great luxury of eating minutes-old sushi from a yellowfin tuna we caught.”

In 1998 Mr. Jarvis worked on the book “Bermuda’s Architectural Heritage: St. George’s” for the Bermuda National Trust.

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