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Summer Research Profile: Michael Becker

Michael Becker

Michael Becker in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in front of a mural of Jean Price-Mars, a Haitian politician, ethnologist, and champion of the Négritude movement. (Photo by Laura Wagner)

Tracking Caribbean Island-Hoppers

July 7, 2014

During the 18th and 19th centuries, people, news, and ideas moved among the islands of the Western Caribbean along black-market trade routes. These island-hoppers had an important influence on the world, according to Michael Becker, a first-year history PhD student.

“We see the Caribbean as a place for vacationers, sweatshops, and cheap labor,” Becker says. “It’s on the periphery of our consciousness. But during this period, the Caribbean was crucial to the Atlantic region and the world as a whole.

“I don’t think we can talk about the world we live in now without talking about slavery, colonialism, the rise of capitalism. We don’t often think about it, but what happens in this period in this region serves as a blueprint for a lot of developments that come later. Even at the level of what it means to be human itself, early exploration prompted debates over whether indigenous Caribbean people should be enslaved, and whether Africans should be enslaved. Yet, it’s not just a European debate—although our records reflect that much more.

“As a professor from undergrad once asked, ‘Who is better positioned to tell you about freedom than an enslaved African in the hold of a slave ship?’ ”

As a whole, the islands of the Western Caribbean present too expansive a topic to tackle all at once. So Becker’s summer research is focusing on one piece of this puzzle — the connections between eastern Jamaica and Haiti’s southwestern peninsula between 1750 and 1870.

Becker, who received a summer research fellowship from The Graduate School, is using the summer to build the foundation for his research. He spent the first month in two New England libraries, examining archives of newspapers printed in Haiti and Jamaica during the time period he is studying.

“I’m building a scaffolding for further research — trying to understand what sort of maritime traffic there would have been, what sort of commodities were traded, what ports were used, what sort of news would have made it into the newspapers,” he says. “This is the first step to what would undoubtedly be a broader and deeper project.”

Becker also received a Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowship from the Duke Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies. From June to August, he is in an advanced intensive language course in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, building on his knowledge of Haitian Creole, which is spoken by about 90 percent of the country and will be crucial to conducting research there. While he’s in Port-au-Prince, he is also trying to build connections with Haitian and foreign scholars who are studying Caribbean history.

Becker says summer funding is instrumental to student research. His summer research fellowship, he says, allowed him to make more ambitious plans.

“Having this funding allows me to devote my summer to doing this research instead of seeking outside employment or cutting cost just to make it through the summer,” he says. “It’s not just the cost of living expenses, but also of travel and research materials. For instance, it’s not always easy to get copies of things in Haiti, so I’m taking a portable scanner down there with me. It’s expensive, but it allows me to refer back to the documents I find there.

“Having this funding makes such a big difference to being able to do this work and do it well and prepare quality research as a foundation to my career as a scholar.”

The summer research fellowship, which is guaranteed for all first- and second-year PhD students at Duke, also helped Becker during the academic year, he says. Instead of devoting significant time during his first year trying to find summer funding, he was able to get a head start on his research.

“I have friends at other institutions who are doing very interesting research, but they are having to spend months each year doing extensive grant applications to get funding so they can complete the research for their degrees,” Becker says. “Not having to spend all that time to prepare those applications has allowed me to make significant strides. Without that, I would be in a much more difficult position.”