Jordan B. Smith’s dissertation “The Invention of Rum” (Georgetown University) has won the 2019 SHEAR Dissertation Prize. Every year, in cooperation with Penn Press, SHEAR awards the SHEAR Dissertation Prize to an exceptional unpublished dissertation pertaining to the history of North America from 1776 to 1861, that will then be published by the press in the Early American Studies series. The prize committee, including Joanne Pope Melish, Dan Richter, and Bob Lockhart, chose Smith’s “The Invention of Rum” as an impressive piece of research and writing with many great strengths.
First, it integrates labor history with the history of technology in a way that pays careful attention to the role of actual workers, in this case enslaved people, not only in the genealogy of development and adaptation of technical processes, but also in the creative production and transmission of knowledge about that evolving technology and the commodity produced by it. Its second strength is the relatively balanced attention it pays to the Caribbean, North America, Europe, and Africa in its examination of the circulation of people, materials, apparatuses, and knowledge in the development of this commodity. (A lot of scholarship characterized as “Atlantic history” doesn’t really do this.) This manuscript is an exemplar of Atlantic history, and it brings together the best aspects of Atlantic history with commodity history and the history of capitalism to demonstrate that there is still a great deal of life remaining in all of those paradigms. While Jordan’s argument is well theorized, it doesn’t moralize, it doesn’t dehumanize in an abstracted way, and it tells a story grounded in the everyday, unpredictable, and often accidental decisions of people in particular places at particular times. In short, “The Invention of Rum” is an impressive accomplishment, very deserving of the prize it has won.
Many thanks to the prize committee members for their hard work in selecting Smith’s dissertation.