Q&A with history professor Paul Musselwhite

by Emily Lu | 10/24/19 2:00am


Musselwhite specializes in the field of colonial American history.

Source: Courtesy of Paul Musselwhite

Paul Musselwhite is an associate professor of history who studies the plantation societies of early America. He recently co-edited “Virginia 1619: Slavery and Freedom in the Making of English America,” a volume of essays published last June. In 2017, Musselwhite, along with co-editor James Horn, organized a conference hosted at Dartmouth focused on events in Virginia in 1619, which contributed significantly to the collection. Musselwhite currently teaches multiple classes on colonial America, and will be teaching HIST 13, “Planters, Puritans, and Pirates” in the winter. 

What was the research process like for your most recent book, “Virginia 1619”?

PM: A lot of the intellectual work was framing and theorizing. My own contribution to this project was this sort of research project where I worked through the records of the Virginia Company and many of the administrative documents and sorted out the stories. It’s about the way that structures of land ownership and organization are being framed and, around this same moment in 1619, the first Africans arrived and why that’s significant. All the things that happened in 1619 — seeing them as part of a conscious debate rather than a series of accidents, which is the way that it’s tended to be portrayed: a supremely painful and tragic irony that legislative development happens at the same time as the arrival of Africans. But actually, people at the time recognized these as different paths that English colonial development in America could take. 

With the New York Times’ recent project on 1619, the anniversary has recently received a lot of media attention. What is the significance of the publicity surrounding the 1619 anniversary?

PM: I think that publicity is great, because it really brings people’s attention to the issue of how slavery began, how is it entangled with American history going all this way back. There are some different strands of it; there’s the strand of understanding 1619 as the beginning of a distinct African American history, which is an important story to tell. But it also raises these questions about the place of slavery in American society and the way that it’s deeply embedded into the institutional structures. There are people who describe themselves as “1619 skeptics,” because actually the story is much more complicated. The arrivals in 1619 were not the first Africans in what became the United States, because there were already Africans in Spanish Florida, nor were they the first Africans in British America because, two years before, Africans had already been brought to Bermuda, which was already a British colony. In many respects it’s a very parochial story — it closes off many of these other angles. There are all sorts of reasons to muddy the waters of 1619, but what the publicity and hopefully the book does is get people to think there are problems with this as a straightforward narrative of when slavery began or when African American history began. But what it is, is a moment when the place of African laborers and enslaved labor within a system of English land ownership and colonialism starts to come to a head — and established things that have much longer ramifications.

What does your current research involve?

PM: A piece in this volume is the beginning of this new project I’m engaged in which is tracing the evolution of the idea of plantation in English America. It meant effectively establishing a new kind of society in a colonial place based on agriculture, but primarily about constructing a community and a political unit. It’s used in that sense by people in early Virginia and early Maryland, but by the end of the 17th century, we’ve morphed into this place in which plantation meant a private piece of land run by an individual called a “planter” who uses forced labor. Plantations became these capitalistic units of environmental and human exploitation, and hence why we are today having all of these debates about the use of the word “plantation.” The project is about figuring out what happens that changes this definition and who’s responsible, which I see as being critical to justifying slavery and the construction of a capitalist market. There’s this tweaking of the definition of plantation so that it still looks civil and public, while actually it increasingly serves the private interest of certain people.

What sparked your interest in colonial and plantation societies? 

PM: I traveled to the U.S. a lot — I’m originally from the UK — as a kid and a teenager and visited a lot of historic sites. I just became interested in the ways these historic sites will make claims about how the colonists brought with them “English-ness” or these British elements. As a British person, you go there and think, “Well this doesn’t seem very British,” and that got me fascinated from the outside. Then I went on to take classes as an undergraduate in American history precisely because of that. I was trying to understand how “British-ness” or “English-ness,” institutions, cultures, people get translated in these odd ways to America; how does it come to intersect with the stories of enslaved Africans and indigenous people to generate these colonial cultures that we have overwritten with narratives that they are inherently pulled out from England — when they are actually a lot more complicated than that. I see myself as pushing back against narratives that are still fairly common in early American history: that you can find a direct seed for American cultures in particular parts of England. 

Have you been able to make connections from your studies of early America to trends in the current political landscape? If so, in what ways?

PM: You can actually read some of the preexisting interpretations around 1619 as being from either extreme of the political spectrum. You can see what begins here as something that’s unabashedly terrible because it is capitalist exploitation. On the other hand, the traditional story is that Virginia is a failure, while everyone is forced to run as one company and share all their resources. So the right-wing narrative is, “We’ve privatized things and it’s great success.” There are strains within the story that could appeal to various different political persuasions. It reminds us that the events of the early 17th century still have purchase for us today. The people involved in Virginia colonization were thinking about what it means to run a society based on slave labor versus on free labor. What does it mean to give people representation? How do you preserve the common good yet motivate private interest? Those are questions that we still think about today, like the boundaries of corporate rights and corporate responsibility. It’s easy to write it off as being very antiquary, but actually it still has these direct connections which people pull all different directions. 

Your other areas of expertise focus on political culture and sensory history. Could you talk about your work in those fields?

PM: I’ve published a volume about the history of sensory perception in the Americas over the 17th and 18th century, focused on the idea that sensory perceptions are not timeless, which is something that we tend to think. If you go to a historic site, they’ll say, “Come experience the past, because you can go into a historic house and smell the fire.” And so it smells like it did in colonial times. But it doesn’t really, because all of the associations your mind makes when it smells smoke are predicated on your own experience. What smoke smells like to you, is not what smoke smelled like to somebody in the 17th century. These are all culturally constructed. This is where it’s intersected with my interest in political culture is that people consciously tried to manipulate what things smelled like, tasted like, felt like, in order to create certain sorts of narratives about political authority and colonialism.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.