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Student Spotlight

Andrew Rutledge

PhD Candidate, Department of History

Interview and text by Bruno Renero-Hannan, LACS Staff

Andrew is this year’s recipient of the Latin American and Caribbean Studies Center’s Alfredo Gutiérrez Dissertation Award for Graduate Students (2017-2018) for his dissertation, Still no Peace beyond the Line: Commerce and Conflict in the Anglo-Spanish Caribbean, 1710-1760.

Andrew Rutledge at the National Library in Jamaica

Roots by the sea

Andrew grew up in Orange County, in Southern California, two miles from the Pacific Ocean. “Looking back,” he says, “it was probably from growing up so near the Pacific that I first started wondering about oceanic travel, and what it was like to try crossing something that big and uncaring on a small wooden ship.”

As an undergraduate, Andrew attended the University of California, Riverside, where he double-majored in History and Economics—“the former because it fascinated me, and the latter because I naively thought it would help me get a job afterwards.” After graduating, Andrew moved inland to the Midwest in order to attend a one-year Masters’ program at the University of Chicago. He also worked at the Oriental Institute’s Artifact Lab and spent a summer at an archaeological excavation in southern Illinois, before moving to Michigan to begin his PhD.

Andrew’s dissertation: “On-the-ground and on-the-waves”

Andrew dissertation is titled, Still no Peace beyond the Line: Commerce and Conflict in the Anglo-Spanish Caribbean, 1710-1760. It examines the “on-the-ground and on-the-waves experiences of Anglo-Spanish colonists.” Thus, he attempts to explain how it was that Jamaicans and Cubans were able to form and maintain “the relationships necessary for international trade,” in the face of predatory pirates and of colonial authorities bent on stamping out this illicit form of inter-imperial commerce.

At Jamaica's National Archives

On finding himself in the Caribbean

What was it that first attracted him to the field of Caribbean Studies? To this, Andrew’s answer is simple, yet surprising (at least to those uninitiated in the field of Caribbean history): He found himself working on the Caribbean—“as a direct result of my interest in smuggling.”

By delving into the history of smuggling in the Atlantic World, Andrew realized that this system was centered around the Caribbean. “After that realization, my research has taken me deeper and deeper into the West Indies, even as the focus of the dissertation itself has narrowed to Jamaica and Cuba.” From the historical scholarship, Andrew then discovered that Jamaica “was the primary smuggling entrepôt [port through which goods are exported and imported] of British America, particularly for trade with Spanish America.” And, finally, from the archival records—the raw material of the historian—Andrew learned that Cuba was the favored destination of Jamaican smugglers, which thus led to his double focus on the two islands and their intricate relationship.

18th Century Caribbean smugglers, and why they matter

So why does someone dedicate years of their life to studying and writing about West Indian (Caribbean) traders and smugglers? In answer to this, Andrew contends that his field and his research, specifically, are significant on account of their ability to reveal “how fundamental international trade and inter-imperial connections were in the Early Modern Caribbean.”

“We tend to think, and to teach, about the West Indian sugar islands”—that is, the Caribbean Islands where slave labor and sugarcane came to dominate their colonial societies and economies—“as monocrop specks of land whose only real outside connection was with Europe and, to some extent, Africa.” Yet, he adds, emphatically, “that’s not the case at all.”

Meanwhile, in Cuba—where slavery was allowed, yet the slave trade was prohibited—those same smugglers were providing “the enslaved Africans that fueled the rise of that island’s own infamous sugar industry.”

Contrary to the prevalent view of the colonial West Indies as isolated peripheries of European empires, “regional connections and trade were fundamental to these colonial societies.” Illicit trade, in particular, “reached broad and deep, drawing in not only merchants and planters”—that is, elites and middle figures—“but also poor whites and free blacks who manned the vessels carrying contraband cargoes.” Even enslaved Africans would occasionally use these “networks as avenues of escape from bondage.”

The allure of the archives: “To touch this tiny bit of the past...”

Asked to name one of his most exciting archival discoveries, Andrew says that this came in Seville’s Archivo General de Indias, the repository of the Spanish Empire’s vast records: While reading through correspondence sent by the Cuban authorities back to Europe, Andrew came across a judicial case involving a Jamaican “sloop” (sailboat) that the Cubans captured when its crew was illicitly trading near the port of Havana. There, among the contents of the court case, he found “a small card.” On the card “were five samples of the different types of cloth the ship had been carrying.” Smugglers themselves had pasted these samples on there, “so that potential Cuban buyers [knew] what was available.” “It was so unexpected,” muses Andrew, “and being able to touch this tiny bit of the past was just amazing.”

The National Library in Jamaica.

On doing a PhD at Michigan

In response to the question, “Why Michigan?”, Andrew explains that he was drawn to UM by its “incredible faculty—particularly David Hancock, Rebecca Scott, and Susan Juster—and the positive atmosphere among the graduate students.” Recalling his first impressions of Ann Arbor during his recruitment weekend, he says that the current graduate students were friendly and welcoming, yet also “open about both the (History) Department’s strengths and weaknesses.” Those first impressions, he adds, proved to be accurate predictors of his experience as a student here. “To me, those interactions were really impressive, and I took them as very positive signs about the collegiality and general environment at U-M.” Finally, as anyone embarking on a long-term graduate program comprehends, “one of the biggest reasons [for choosing Michigan] was financial. Michigan offered a much better support package to PhD students than the other programs I received offers from.” 

On mentors and advisors

As an undergraduate student at UC Riverside, Andrew’s mentor was Georg Michels, a professor of Russian history (“how far I’ve wandered since then!” he interjects, musingly), towards whom Andrew feels a sense of “great debt for his patience and kindness in helping to prepare me for graduate school.”  

Here, at Michigan, Andrew’s adviser is Prof. David Hancock, who specializes in the history of the Atlantic World. He also works closely with Professors Rebecca Scott and Susan Juster, in the History Department, and Susan Parrish, in the English Department. “All four have been invaluable resources during graduate school.”

After the PhD

After completing his doctorate in history, Andrew’s intention is to remain in academia. This way, “I can continue to study the past and share its lessons and warnings with students.”

On receiving the LACS Alfredo Gutiérrez Dissertation Award