Julius S. Scott, Influential Historian of the Caribbean, Dies at 66

In “The Common Wind,” he linked the Haitian Revolution to the spread of ideas by word of mouth as sailors and enslaved people navigated Atlantic commerce.

An obituary by Sam Roberts for The New York Times.

Julius S. Scott, who became something of a cult figure among scholars for his groundbreaking dissertation on the 18th-century Haitian slave revolt, which he completed as a graduate student but was rejected by mainstream publishers for three decades, died on Dec. 6 in Ann Arbor, Mich. He was 66.

His death was confirmed by his partner, Elisha P. Renne, professor emerita in the department of Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan. She said he had diabetes and had been hospitalized with other health problems several times since mid-November.

The story behind the long-awaited publishing success of Dr. Scott’s “The Common Wind: Afro-American Currents in the Age of the Haitian Revolution,” turned out to be strikingly similar to the theme of the book, which began as his Ph.D. thesis at Duke University in 1986.

Inspired by Fernand Braudel’s composite history of the Mediterranean, Dr. Scott produced what Publishers Weekly called “a sweeping intercontinental dissertation on how slaves, free Blacks, sailors, market women and others spread word” about the successful Haitian Revolution and resulting emancipation.

His meticulous, imaginative and tenacious research, bolstered by his fluency in French and Spanish, revealed a previously undiscovered 18th-century intercontinental communication network. This was the way “the marginalized peoples of the Caribbean — peoples of African and European descent — covertly communicated and spread by word of mouth news of the French Revolution, imperial reforms to slavery, and rebellions against the plantation system,” Malkah Bressler wrote in the Los Angeles Review of Books in 2019.

The uprisings, in what was then the French colony of St. Domingue, began in 1791 and led to emancipation and independence for the country, renamed Haiti, in 1804. Haiti was the second country to achieve independence in the Americas, after the United States.

Dr. Scott’s manuscript was originally rejected by Indiana University Press. He then signed a contract with Oxford University Press but dropped the project because he disagreed with revisions suggested by fellow academics who had reviewed his draft at the request of Oxford’s editors. He also wanted to learn Dutch and Danish to further his archival research.

“I set an agenda for myself that was far too ambitious,” he recalled in an interview with Publishers Weekly in 2018. “Eventually, I put the dissertation aside. I had a job, and I left it at that.”

An undated engraving titled “Revolt of the Negroes at St. Domingue” depicts an uprising led by Toussaint L’Ouverture.
An undated engraving titled “Revolt of the Negroes at St. Domingue” depicts an uprising led by Toussaint L’Ouverture

He eventually abandoned the book project and turned to teaching; he joined the University of Michigan faculty in 1991. (He was also diverted by health problems.) But his dissertation quietly attracted a following among the cognoscenti of Caribbean and Atlantic history. Vincent Brown, a Harvard professor of African and African American Studies, compared Dr. Scott’s work to “an underground mixtape.”

“The Common Wind,” Ms. Bressler wrote, “traces a vast communication network (not unlike the scholarly one that circulated the text itself) through the plantation societies of the Caribbean during the height of French, British and Spanish imperial control.”

Dr. Scott’s “unpublished work,” she noted, “has been reverently passed from academic to academic, transforming from an impressive doctoral thesis to a cornerstone in the study of the 18th-century Caribbean.”

No one was more surprised by this than Dr. Scott.

“I started getting royalty checks every year from the people who make dissertations available in print,” he told Publishers Weekly. “I realized it was being sold. People were reading my dissertation and learning something from it.”

When an editor at Verso Books asked Dr. Scott’s friend Marcus Rediker, a history professor at the University of Pittsburgh, to suggest possible publications, “The Common Wind” was finally lofted into book form in 2018. It won the Stone Book Award, given by the Museum of African American History, and the Frederick Douglass Book Prize, given by the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance and Abolition at Yale University.

“I couldn’t believe it!” Dr. Scott said. “Initially, I didn’t want to dredge up those failures from over 30 years ago. My life had changed: I went on dialysis, I’m on disability. But I went ahead and published it, and I’m glad I did.”

Reviewers lamented only that Dr. Scott had not updated his dissertation with subsequent scholarship. Otherwise, most sang its praises. “The Common Wind,” David Bell wrote in The New York Review of Books, captures “the voices — sometimes only whispers — that carried radical ideas and information around the Caribbean,” and “beautifully evokes bustling ports and markets, remote jungle and mountain hideaways, wind-swept ship decks and fetid, cargo-laden hulls.”

The book’s title comes from William Wordsworth’s 1802 tribute to the Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L’Ouverture: “There’s not a breathing of the common wind/That will forget thee” — a wind that carried ideas spread by sailors, enslaved people and free people of color engaged in Atlantic trade.

Julius Sherrod Scott III was born on July 31, 1955, in Marshall, Texas, near the Louisiana border. His father, a Methodist minister, was president of Wiley College in Marshall (as was his grandfather) and in 1970 was named executive director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta. Dr. Scott’s mother, Ianthia (Harrell) Scott, was a librarian.

In 1961, Scotty, as he was known, was one of two Black students who integrated the first grade at the MacGregor Elementary School in south central Houston. The white students had separate restrooms for boys and girls. Scotty and the Black girl in his class were relegated to a single separate restroom outside the school.

His parents learned about the separate facilities only when they overheard their son saying his prayers: “Thank you, God, for letting me have my own bathroom at school.”

Publicity about his parents’ protests to the school board prompted teachers to allow both Black first graders to use the indoor restrooms. After Scotty completed the second grade, the family moved to Providence, R.I., where his father became assistant chaplain at Brown University.

Dr. Scott graduated from Brown with a bachelor’s degree in history in 1977 and earned his doctorate at Duke. In addition to Professor Renne, he is survived by his mother and two brothers, David and Lamar Scott.

Dr. Scott was inspired to write his book as a teenager, he said, while watching the 1968 Olympics from Mexico City, where several athletes from the United States gave Black Power salutes, prompting him to consider their relationship and means of communication with Black athletes from Africa, the Caribbean and South America.

“I really wanted to demonstrate some of the ways in which communication — ideas, information, news and rumors — traveled from place to place,” he said.

Manisha Sinha wrote in The Nation in 2019 that “the history of the Black Atlantic as it is currently known would simply not have been possible without Scott’s immense contributions.”

Neil Roberts, a professor of Africana studies at Williams College in Massachusetts, called Dr. Scott’s original thesis “arguably the most read, sought after and discussed English-language dissertation in the humanities and social sciences during the 20th century.”

“Scott underscored the importance of the Haitian Revolution and its aftershocks when the ‘Age of Revolution’ remained overwhelmingly reduced to only the American and French Revolutions in the historiography of the day,” Professor Roberts wrote in an email. “Scott highlighted the complex relationships among slavery, capitalism and freedom, whose effects resonate with us today.”

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