Off to the archives
By Michael B. Murphy
Fifteen years ago, while tucked away inside London’s Public Records Office, now known as the National archives, FSU History Professor Richard Allen stumbled upon a discovery that would alter the course of his life and career. Allen would describe this moment as “a good example of how you can be searching for one subject and you end up doing something.”
Allen had been fastidiously researching the island of Mauritius, located in the Indian Ocean, when he stumbled upon the recorded dispatches of a governor who was alarmed at the number of illegal slaves that were entering the island.
“My ears just immediately pricked. Little did I expect that it would lead me to where I am right now,” Allen said.
Where Allen finds himself right now is in his small yet surprisingly well-kept office on the third floor of May Hall. He speaks fondly of that moment 15 years ago, a crucial moment in his life that has yet to become obfuscated by the passage of time. He speaks even more fondly of his being granted a fellowship from the National Endowments for the Humanities to continue his research on slave trading in the Indian Ocean. Past recipients include famed filmmaker Kevin Burns, director of the award-winning documentary “The Civil War.”
Unsurprisingly, Allen was overjoyed by being the recipient of this fellowship.
“I’m very pleased, it goes without saying,” he said with a smile, “but I’m also very comfortable.”
Allen all every reason to be comfortable and self-assured, as he was just one of 80 to be selected for an NEH fellowship – a fellowship that 1,339 others had applied for.
“I had asked for 12 months worth of funding … which is going to be $50,4000,” he said.
Having never applied for an NEW fellowship before, Allen supposed he was chosen because of his lengthy and exhaustive studying on the Indian Ocean slave trade.
“I’ve been working on this project since 1995, and it’s reached the point now, it’s sort of critical mass, an intellectual critical mass,” he said.
Allen has already completed the first two chapters of his manuscript, “European Slave Trading in the Indian Ocean, 1500-1850.” His fellowship could not have come at a better time, he said. “I need the time to visit some archives that I haven’t had the chance to visit before. So that means I’ll be going to France, working with at least a couple of archives there. I’ll also probably spend some additional time in England.”
He plans on using the rest of the time to complete his manuscript, which he envisions being up to 500-600 pages long. Ultimately, Allen would like to publish a definitive account of the slave trade in the Indian Ocean.
Though born and raised in Illinois, Allen was introduced to the world at large, it’s many different countries and cultures, at an early, impressionable age. At the cusp of adolescence, Allen would move to the other side of the world, living in such countries as Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. After coming back to his country, he would attend the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and receive his B.A. magna cum laude in History. He would later receive his Ph.D in History at the very same university.
Allen believes his time spent overseas at such a young age helped cultivate his thirst for the history of other cultures.
“It was a very, very important and informative period of my life,” he said.
His openness to the world and all its different inhabitants, and the imprint they left on him as a fellow human being, is why accuracy in historical documentation is so vitally important to him. Allen sees the world beyond the limiting scope of a Westerner. He even describes himself as “very much the non-western historian.”
This might be why he is willing to defy the status quo of his fellow historians.
“One of the big problems, one of the issues that I’m trying to address here,” he said, “is that if you take a look at the work that’s been done on European lave trading, up to this point in time, it has been focused largely on the Atlantic [Ocean]. … We have one word in the English language, ‘slave,’ and it’s most acquired the meaning that is most closely associated with this notion of ‘chattel’ – humans treated as chattel property – when, in fact, if you take a look at what’s happening in even some parts of Africa, definitely in Asia, Southeast Asian, slave status there is something which can be quite varied. It depends upon the time, depends upon the place, depends upon the context.”
When his manuscript is published, Allen, who has already published a book titled “Slaves, Freedmen, and Indentured Laborers in Colonial Mauritius,” hopes to deprogram the way many historians have studied and taught the issue of the slave trade in the Indian and Atlantic Oceans.
The work that has been done on the topic, Allen said, “remained within these geographically determined boundaries in which the Atlantic world is seen as something that exists in isolation. … It’s time for us to get beyond, what one of my colleagues has called, quote, ‘the tyranny of the Atlantic.’ So when we talk about the movement of slaves – African, Asian … that we begin to appreciate that this truly was a global phenomenon. What happened in the Indian Ocean clearly influenced what happened in the Atlantic, and vice versa.”
While Allen understands there are those who are resistant to his ideas, he chalks it up to their being uncomfortable to thinking outside of the box.
“We all, ultimately, slip into our intellectual comfort zones, and what I’m proposing to do here is basically challenge these accepted comfort zones, and say, ‘We can no longer operate within the conceptual frameworks with perimeters that have existed here for far too long,'” Allen said.
Allen’s passion and dedication to challenging others’ comfort zones may serve as a warning for those that are willing to listen to him.
“I think that one of the major failings in of Americans, in general,” he said, “and [FSU] in particular, is that we do not pay enough attention to the fact that there are people and societies and economies out there that intrude upon our lives in a very indirect way, but about which we’re clueless.
“So, if we don’t understand who we’re up against, then how can we possibly respond to the issues and challenges that are going to face us? … Ignorance is not bliss. Ignorance is incredibly dangerous. If we’re complacent, we ultimately pay the price, the price of that intellectual complacency.”