Fraser Harbutt Interview with David Eltis

FH.     David, you grew up, I think, in postwar Britain, in the Northeast, specifically in Newcastle? I wonder if you could start by telling us something of your early life there?

DE.    I came from a working class, rural background. My life was not really exceptional. I went to a local grammar school, under what was then called the ¿eleven plus¿ system. Then I went to the local university and shortly thereafter I left England and moved to Canada.

FH.    I¿d like to pursue, partly on personal grounds I must admit, the ¿North of England¿ dimension just for  moment.  I see you were born in South Shields (near Newcastle) and that happens to be the town my father¿s family came from.  It also happens that I lived for a part of my youth in Darlington, County Durham, just down the road. This seems to be one of those sticky regions that puts an indelible mark on a person growing up.

DE.    It certainly sets you off from other parts of the United Kingdom. For one thing the accent is impenetrable.  I think it¿s the part of England farthest away from what used to be called ¿Standard English.¿

FH.    And still plenty of memories of Viking invasions and especially of wild Scottish incursions.

DE.    Yes. You go to any part of the countryside around Newcastle, and of course on the other side of the Scottish border, too, and you will find an abundance of fortified houses from the 15th century and earlier, and still standing today.

FH.    People there have a vivid sense of history.

DE.    Yes indeed. I studied history when I entered Kings College, Newcastle leading to my B.A., which was formally  from the University of Durham in the early 1960s. I don¿t think I ever wanted to do anything else. The focus on history has always been a strong part of my identity.

FH.    Postwar Britain, looking back today, was obviously going through a hard time, admirably captured in David Kynaston¿s recent book, Austerity Britain. Reconstruction from the bombing, shortages, rationing, a deepening sense of national decline. Was this a context you were particularly aware of?

DE.     Yes, and it is vividly captured in Kynaston¿s recent sequel, Family Britain, 1951-1957,  I remember the atmosphere and conditions of the period very well. I think Britain took longer than anywhere else in Europe to recover from World War II. Given that only one in ten allied troops in Europe in May 1945 was from Britain or the British Commonwealth, and it was the Soviet Union and the U.S. that won the war, Britain may have been economically better off postwar if it had spent the war occupied, like France. It would certainly have incurred less debt.

FH.     We still had sugar and butter rationing in 1953, I remember, long after the supposedly suffering continentals had got over it.  Yet the historian David Cannadine, writing in 1986, looked back on that era as a kind of golden age of historical scholarship in Britain.  Times were hard, he concedes, but the public was deeply interested in the past, especially British history.  Great figures like Kitson Clark, Geoffrey Elton and A.J.P. Taylor were publishing. Was this intellectual atmosphere widespread?

DE.    I think the advent of television had something to do with it.  In the early days television was largely a matter of ¿talking heads¿ and you had a lot of historians talking on TV. And the BBC encouraged it. And this has continued to a degree with History Channels and so forth, though modern presentations tend to be more fragmented than the ¿big picture¿ programs we had then.

FH.    What persuaded you to migrate to Canada

DE.    We benefitted from what would now be called ¿racial¿ or ethnic profiling.  In those days healthy British citizens could settle in Canada and Australia ahead of anyone else  (indeed, in Australia, a white¿s only immigration policy was still very much in force) and my wife and I had the choice of Canada,  with no money up front,  and Australia for ten pounds sterling each, so we went west.   

FH.    I must say the limited appeal of life in postwar Britain is coming to life very strongly here!  When you got to Canada you  studied at Dalhousie University and did a Bachelor of Education degree there in 1965 and later a Master of Arts degree at the University of Alberta in 1969, all with a view to a teaching career. 

DE.     Yes. After that I got a job for a year in western Canada and then spent many years teaching in community college in Ottawa. It was only during those years  -  the 1970s  -  that I began to think slowly about joining a Ph.D. program. I never wanted to do anything else but write history. The problem was family responsibilities.  So I was unable to begin my doctoral studies until 1976.

FH.    And this was at the University of Rochester.  Another cold place!  I¿m beginning to see a biographical theme here.   But of course Rochester had the reputation of being a remarkably creative campus to work in during the 1970s. 

DE.    Yes it was, though within a decade of my leaving there was a serious debate about closing the Ph.D program as the Kodak company lurched into decline  -  a lesson in the fragility of great universities. 

FH.    When you were there it had an impressive faculty, especially in African-American history and the study of slavery, with the Genovese¿s, Chistopher Lasch and  the famous duo of Fogel and Engerman who were then developing the new statistical methodologies that emerged with much fanfare and controversy in their book, Time on the Cross. Do we see a crucial turning point for you in these new approaches, which you seem to me to have absorbed and extended in several ways in your own work? 

DE.     Yes, this was a turning point.  I had published three journal articles on abolition before I began the Ph. D, but none of them were particularly quantitative.  I was, however, teaching economics in a community college.  I chose Rochester because I was so attracted by the paradoxes and quality of the analysis in both Roll, Jordan Roll and Time on the Cross.  By the time I arrived Bob Fogel and Herb Guttman had left but I was fortunate to have Gene Genovese on my committees and to work closely with Stan Engerman (now alternating between Harvard and Rochester) who knows more about slavery than anyone living.  He agreed to supervise my thesis and changed the direction of my work.  We are currently editing part of the multi-volume Cambridge World History of Slavery.

FH.    What was the dominating consideration for you in making this commitment to the historical study of slavery. Was it essentially a moral impulse, or was it mainly a consequence of the intellectual ferment of a period in which there was, after all, a great volume of impassioned scholarship on the subject. 

DE.    Intellectual ferment of the day, I guess.  At root there was this acute sense of discontinuity between the moral values of the present and those of the very recent past. After all, when I began serious work the last slave vessel from Africa had sailed less than 100 years earlier. A more dramatic personal example of this is David Brion Davis¿ experience.  When he joined the U.S. Army at the end of World War II the armed services were still segregated and after boarding a troop ship to Europe he, along with other white soldiers, was given a billy-club and told to patrol the below-decks area where the black troops travelled. A few months later, in Germany, he found himself under orders to fire, not at the Nazi enemy, but at black U.S. troops who had been provoked by systematic discrimination to mutiny.    

FH.    You got through your doctorate in remarkably quick time.

DE.    Actually I taught in a community college for a total of 22 years.  And I entered the Rochester doctoral program while on sabbatical from that job. I satisfied the course and residency requirements in one year. The essays I had already published became the heart of my thesis and I graduated three years after registering.  Because I was coming to this academic level so late I felt I really had to get on with it.

FH.     I want to turn in a moment to your very important work in the Atlantic World field but first, to give our readers some kind of framework, lets quickly clarify your professional and institutional path after you left Rochester.  You continued to teach in your college in Ottawa for some time, amidst growing family responsibilities, but after your first book (Economic Growth and the Ending of the Transatlantic Slave Trade) was published by Oxford University Press in 1987, you obtained a position as  Professor of History at Queens University in Kingston, where you were based for thirteen years while taking up various appointments and fellowships at Harvard and Yale.  Later you were a Visiting Fellow at All Souls College at Oxford University.  You joined us here at Emory as our first Robert W. Woodruff  Professor of History in 2002.   During the relatively short period 1999-2010 you won no fewer than seven major prizes for your academic work ( Best Book in British History, Best Book in African-American History, Best article in Civil War History etc.) as well as a Killam Research Fellowship from the Canada Council.  And during that time you published eight major works in the ¿Books/Monographs.Electronic Publications¿ category and, on my rough count, about thirty-five journal articles and contributions to edited books.  You were also successful in obtaining , as a co-principal investigator, grants to further your projects in the total sum of  nearly $1 million, testifying unmistakably to the confidence which the historical profession has shown in both the importance and high quality of the work you have done and are continuing.  This truly remarkable record speaks most eloquently for itself.

FH.     Lets turn now to talk about some of the main themes in your published work.  The interest in the abolition of the slave trade first appears, I think, in a book you edited in 1981 from various conference contributions, including your own.  Was there an ¿Atlantic World¿ academic field in being at that time

DE.    No. I don¿t think there was.  The initial focus on slavery was driven entirely by work in and thereabout the United States.  Then, as the 1970s progressed, people in North America, at least, began to realize that here was a world outside and this broader awareness began to catch on among historians in other countries around the Atlantic 

FH.     Your first book, on the transatlantic slave trade, came in 1987.  What was the general line of thought there.

DE.    I had become very interested in the fact that the Atlantic, especially the North Atlantic, was expanding in economic terms during the late 18th century.  And slavery was expanding with it.  And the period of expansion was associated with the era of abolition. And this coincidence, of dynamic economic growth with the campaign against one of the main contributory factors to that expansion, intrigued me. 

FH.     Were you using quantitative techniques at this point. 

DE.    I was.  And the point of that book and of much of my subsequent work, has been to pose questions via quantitiative material. But I don¿t think the quantitative approach alone can answer the basic questions. 

FH.    Since then, and that¿s about twenty years ago, you have been very active as a leader in the study of transatlantic slavery.  You¿ve been prominent at many conferences and have edited many books, usually as the lead editor of a team that has presented a constantly expanding volume of evidence and has opened up and enriched numerous sub-fields  -  regional, topical, social, political and economic.  And all this while pioneering a range of methodological innovations culminating in the extraordinary data base produced in 1999, which contains references to almost 35.000 slaving voyages that forcibly embarked over 10 million Africans for transport to the Americas between the 16th and 19th centuries.  It is clear that during that twenty- odd years of historical inquiry an impressive body of scholars has been engaged in the field.  One is struck both by the variety of the work and the range of disciplines represented in the books you have edited.  Is there a sense of common purpose in this scholarly community?

DE.    I think two things really define this team effort.  One is the availability and rapidly diminishing cost of computer technology.  Interest in slavery developed in step with computer technology.  The second point is that as this technology developed and interest grew in the subject in the United States and elsewhere around the Atlantic, the project was such that unless you participated in a team effort you were not going to be able to contribute very much.  You really had to draw on skills that you didn¿t have yourself.  All this fostered collaboration.  But I don¿t think this kind of impulse has manifested itself fully in other fields. 

FH.     Is the field still in a building stage or has it already established itself do you think? 

DE.     I think it has changed direction. Increasingly, the quantitative issues are no longer central. I¿d like to think that there is a consensus that the major issues we were wrestling with fifteen or twenty years or so ago have, to some degree, been resolved. Of course if one can¿t agree one tends to ignore the issue.  That¿s part of the problem too.  Time on the Cross, for example, was severely criticized at the time of publication and is almost never cited by historians, as opposed to economists, today.  Yet every one of its major findings has become part of today¿s mainstream views of slavery. 

FH.     I was wondering about possible disagreements in this area. What kind of issues do people in this field argue about?

DE.   Well, I think the central question was really the relationship between slavery and progress, to use David Davis¿ phrase.  Why did we see in the United States this great emphasis on freedom and yet also the largest system of slavery in human history?  And behind that lies the problematic connection between rapid economic growth and coercion. 

FH.   Another question, perhaps, is the degree to which Atlantic World studies, and other broad fields like it, are breaking down more parochial, nationally-focused ways of studying and explaining much in modern history.  Is national history dying?

DE.   I think that the prevalence of different languages and nationally-orchestrated documentation ensure that national history will always be strong. 

FH.    I recently came across a statement made in 1932 by Herbert Bolton, then a prominent figure in Latin American history, pointing to the common extra-European experience of migration and slavery and raising the question whether an ¿American history¿ embracing the whole hemisphere, might one day be possible.

DE.   I¿m not sure we could produce a synthesis but I do think our work has contributed to a much greater awareness in all the Americas of what has been going on elsewhere in the hemisphere.  It is probably better to say we can now do sophisticated comparative histories but we are not yet ready for compelling syntheses. 

FH.   Your work with computers and socio-economic data  -  the data base especially  -  has obviously made a great contribution in your chosen field.  Can you tell us a little more about it, as a technique in historical analysis, and as a substantive illumination of the field generally?  What are the strengths and weaknesses, very briefly, of this way of studying history?

DE.   I think the main contribution is to underline what is implausible.  There are many different interpretations of why things happen.  I think the existence of quantitative data, and the fact that we can use high speed computers now, allows us to be able to set aside false hypotheses.  I don¿t think it provides answers necessarily but I think it narrows the options. 

FH.   You have published more recently another monograph, The Rise of African Slavery in the Americas, with Cambridge University Press.  What was the principal line of thought there?

DE.   My earlier, 1987 book was really about the ending of slavery in the Americas.  This one was about the beginning of it.  I attempted to answer the question: ¿Why did the system begin and why was it racially based, and how is it that the countries that were most closely associated with notions of individual freedom, like the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, were in fact the owners and operators of the most aggressive forms of slavery in the Americas. 

FH.  You are, I know, planning to retire soon and I wonder, as you look back now, how you see the future of this major field that you have significantly shaped. 

DE.    I think its going in the direction of more micro-history.  I think the big-picture debates of the last thirty years are not quite as vibrant as they once were.  I¿m very impressed by the enormous output of younger scholars

FH.  You and your colleagues have set a framework and now the next generation is filling in some of the substance. Are you planning to go on working in the field?

DE.  Yes.  An Atlas of the slave trade co-written by David Richardson and myself, has recently appeared from Yale University Press, and I¿m also developing a new website with the names of Africans who were enslaved.  We are also using these names, which were taken down in a pre-orthographic era, to find out where exactly in Africa people came from.  I also have a project for an overview of the slave trade which I would like to write in three volumes, one taking the standpoint of Europe, one of Africa, and one of the Americas.  It is very much a question of living long enough. 

FH.  Let me end on a local note by asking you to reflect a little on your Emory experience.  We were of course delighted when you came here as our first Woodruff Professor (the leading Chair in Emory¿s history department) ) a few years ago.  But what about your first impressions of Emory.  Did it seem to be a robust, intellectually vibrant environment? 

DE.   Very much so.  Emory provided the kind of support that I had never had before.  The two data base projects that currently occupy my time:  one at; and the second, the African names project at, would not have been possible without Emory.  A talented group of people, both in the department and in the library, supported me and provided technical help.  I guess that the most important thing I have found here is that it is possible, if you manage to get external support, which I eventually did get, you can expect to get a lot of supplementary help from Emory, help which I could not get in Canada or at Harvard where I was involved in the creation  of the CD-Rom

FH.   Soon, sadly, we will have to face the prospect of your retirement?

DE.   Yes, but I am not walking away.  I will continue to direct these two projects after my formal retirement in 2012. 

FH.  That¿s very good news.  I¿m sure we all wish you continuing success, David.  Thank you for all your contributions here.  And thank you too for this interview.