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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University March 5, 2007 | Vol. 36 No. 24
JHU Course Catalog: Shipwreck and Empire

John Russell-Wood, the Herbert Baxter Adams Professor of History, meets with his seminar class in 315 Gilman Hall.
Photo by Will Kirk / HIPS

By Amy Lunday

Editor's note: This is part of an occasional series in which reporters drop in on interesting classes throughout the university's nine academic divisions. Suggestions are welcome at

The course: Shipwreck and Empire. 3 credits. The enrollment for the seminar was originally limited to 25 but opened up to 35 when the professor discovered there were 26 students on the waiting list. Offered by the Department of History and cross-listed with the Program in Latin American Studies, both in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences.

Meeting time: Mondays and Tuesdays, 11 a.m. to noon, spring 2007.

The instructors: Teaching the course is John Russell-Wood, the Herbert Baxter Adams Professor of History, who specializes in Colonial Latin American history and the Portuguese seaborne empire. Russell-Wood joined the Department of History in 1971 and has served as its chair on three occasions. His most recent book, Slavery and Freedom in Colonial Brazil (Oxford: OneWorld, 2002), is one of many publications in his eclectic body of work, which includes historical studies of art, technology, medicine and public health, the family, urban life, women, race, slavery, and administrative and economic history. These varied interests were reflected in his book The Portuguese Empire, 1415-1808 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998). The teaching assistant for the course is Debra Law, a graduate student in the Department of History who specializes in Latin American history.

Syllabus and course work: This course reflects Russell-Wood's interests in comparative colonialism and the Portuguese seaborne empire, as well as his belief that studying history shouldn't be a chore: On his departmental Web page, Russell-Wood writes, "I am a firm believer in how the study and writing and teaching of history is highly enjoyable and can be fun." With Shipwreck and Empire, he follows that credo by assigning readings of swashbuckling firsthand accounts of — what else? — shipwrecks and their harrowing aftermath. Taken from Dutch, English, French, Portuguese and Spanish sources in translation, the texts also describe life at sea, where worlds collided on board vessels whose passengers included both high-ranking officials and "undesirables" like convicts, prostitutes and orphans, all traveling between Spain, Portugal, England and France and their respective colonies in Africa, the Americas and Asia. Through critical readings of these original narratives, students compare the European empires and their maritime histories. The readings also reveal how people reacted when faced by death. In addition to the reading, students write two essays of 10 to 15 pages each.

John Russell-Wood says: "The history of these 'seaborne empires' is both glorious and inglorious. The latter included exploitation of indigenous peoples, destruction of cultures, violence, intolerance and discrimination, and disregard for sovereignty. Shipwrecks were an inalienable part of these histories and attributable to the forces of nature — but also to human failings such as negligence, greed, avarice, rivalries and self-interest. Using contemporary narratives for the Arabian Sea and the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific oceans primarily from the 16th century through to the early 19th century, this course will take the defining moment of shipwreck and its aftermath to address topics such as gender, ethnicity, identity, power and authority, social mobility, religious beliefs and relationships between men of the sea and landsmen."

A student says: "This course is thus far my favorite this semester, and I chose the course based on its name, Dr. Russell-Wood's reputation and my own interest in shipwrecks. I have read fairly extensively about several of them. I have really appreciated the assigned readings because they have provided interesting insights into the history of not only maritime life but of racial and gender designations. I have found Dr. Russell-Wood to be engaging and extremely knowledgeable and genuinely intrigued by the subject matter. His lectures, in combination with the precise readings, have really contributed to my overall comprehension of Portuguese shipwrecks in the Age of Exploration."
— Jessica Rebarber, a junior international studies major from East Brunswick, N.J.


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