Michael J. Becker
Visiting Assistant Professor of History
Pettengill Hall, Room 125
B.A., Africana Studies, Brown University
M.A., History, Duke University
Ph.D., History, Duke University
I am a historian of the African diaspora in the Atlantic world, with a particular focus on the 18th and 19th century Caribbean. I have a particular interest in social, cultural, and legal history, the interplay of popular politics with colonial state power, and methodological approaches to history from below. This semester, I am teaching “The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade” and “Race, Gender, and Power in the Early Modern Atlantic World.”
My current book project examines amelioration – the political project to create a more “humane” or reformed version of slavery – as it intertwined with enslaved people’s everyday conflicts and the legal system of the Jamaican colonial state. I argue that, in the context of a rising anti-slavery movement in metropolitan Britain, some pro-slavery advocates adopted colonial legal reform as a strategy to present slavery as redeemable and colonial governments as capable of restraining slaveholders’ worst impulses. While these reformers were cynical and openly racist in their aims, enslaved people took these proclaimed reforms seriously and strategically mobilized this rhetoric to secure a modicum of justice and redress within – and without – the legal system. Whether through fighting in court for the return of their stolen possessions, or seeking justice for a friend brutally murdered by an overseer, enslaved people were savvy and calculated legal actors who stretched the modest reforms conceded by the state. I contend that the growing significance of the reformed legal system to enslaved people in part marked a shift towards a more powerful colonial state and towards the greater use of coercion and persuasion, instead of primarily violence, to maintain white supremacy and plantocracy.
I have previously researched and published on maroon communities in Haiti during the Haitian Revolution. I am also pursuing a second project, a microhistory of the 1823 Lecesne-Escoffery conspiracy scare in Kingston, Jamaica.
My research has been funded by the American Historical Association, the Fulbright Commission, the John Carter Brown Library, and Friends of Princeton Libraries.