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Uncommon Sense

By oieahc · March 29, 2022

An interview with Fabrício Prado about the Rio de la Plata workshop

#VastEarlyAmerica 14 min read

Now in its 13th year, the Rio de la Plata workshop has grown from an informal gathering to an annual event featuring scholars from around the world. Founder Fabrício Prado (William & Mary) discusses the history of the workshop, how it has changed, and reading choices for people interested in learning more about the key role this region played in Vast Early America.

You can register for the 2022 workshop here. The 2022 workshop will take place online, April 21-22, 2022.

Why did you start the Rio de la Plata workshop?

Fabrício Prado (FP): The Rio de la Plata Workshop started about 12 years ago when I and other fellow Early Modern Rio de la Plata and Atlantic historians wanted to create an informal yet rigorous forum to discuss the history of Atlantic South America that congregated scholars at different stages in their careers, from different countries, and in dialogue with different historiographical traditions and agendas. One of the core ideas was to create a venue where scholars could discuss work in progress in a collegial environment, exchange ideas freely, and receive feedback from scholars who knew the archives, historiographies, and resources available about the Rio de la Plata region (current day Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and southern Brazil) and its connections to the Atlantic World and global processes. 

What has surprised you most as the workshop has grown? 

FP: The growth of the workshop over the years has been surprising in terms of the expansion of research themes, disciplinary approaches, and the geographical location of the participating scholars. Because the workshop brings together scholars at different stages in their careers, diverse historiographical backgrounds, and research agendas, we have had scholars discussing political and social history, trans-national and trans-imperial topics, slavery, the slave trade, commerce and smuggling, participation of elites and subalterns in revolutionary movements­–to mention just a few of the varied research themes.

What I find it fascinating, is that throughout the years, the themes discussed at the workshop are in dialogue with broader historiographical debates of the Atlantic World and Vast Early America. As the workshop has grown, it also has attracted scholars from other disciplines, such as literary studies, anthropology, and political science.

Finally, the most recent expansion we have seen is in terms of geography. In the past four years we have seen the growth in participation of scholars from Europe, especially from the UK and France, in addition to the already common presence from scholars from the US (from the West-Coast to New England), and South America.

 How have the topics/specific areas of interest in the region shifted since you began the workshop?

FP: The change in historiographical topics evolved in tandem with the discussions of the broader fields of Latin American, Atlantic, and Vast Early American history. In recent years, discussions about freedom and captivity, racial politics and intimacy, legal pluralism and contested sovereignties have been central to the debates, and because of the celebrations of the bi-centennials of independence processes in South America (starting in 1810 and ending in 1825), questions about the participation of subaltern groups (women, plebeians, enslaved and free people of African descent, Indigenous peoples) as revolutionaries or royalists  in the wars of independence have been brought to the forefront.

Another underlying theme that I have noticed is the rise of connected histories. Beyond the comparative aspects of trans-imperial and trans-national scholarship, the works presented at the workshop have pointed to the hidden connections beyond national histories. For instance, as Carolina Zumaglini has brought to the workshop, educational reformers such as Domingo Faustino Sarmiento (Arg.) and Thomas Mann (US) sustained an ongoing dialogue, even in such a late period where the national states were already strong. The history of slavery, slave trade, and legal and illegal commerce also have brought the geographies of Africa, Europe, North America, and Asia to the discussions of the Rio de la Plata. In some ways, we are seeing how vast the historical impact of Rio de la Plata has been.

How has your own research changed since the workshop began?

FP: My research has undoubtedly become more expansive in terms of archival and historiographical references thanks to the suggestions I’ve received from other participants, including the discovery of new archives, new collections in archives I was familiar with, and by re-interpreting traditional sources through different methodological lenses that were suggested by other workshop participants.

But the influence of the workshop in my practice as a historian goes beyond the research and has had a deep impact on my teaching. I feel like the diversity of topics and approaches offered by workshop participants changed the way I think about the region, the way I present the historical processes of the region to students by being able to draw on a broader pool of research to talk about the Rio de la Plata and the Atlantic, but also by allowing me to talk about important historiographical debates using the case study of Rio de la Plata but transcending the region. Questions of gender, race, imperialism, colonialism and freedom or coercion are integral to all societies bordering the Atlantic, and because the Rio de la Plata constitutes an area in which the Portuguese, the Spanish, the British, the French and the Empires interacted among each other and with Indigenous groups and populations of African descent, now the region appears not as a “periphery” of Latin America in my courses, but as a case study that offer many examples and counter-points to be discussed in relationship to other regions of Latin America, Europe, Africa and North America.

 What avenues of research (archives, collections, etc.) have become accessible or more accessible since you began the workshop?

FP: In the last decade we’ve experienced a boom in availability of digital collections, from digital databases to archives bringing entire collections of manuscript sources online. I think such a movement, which has been further accelerated by the COVID pandemic, ultimately fostered a democratization of access to sources and repositories for historians. When considering the papers presented at the workshop, it is clear that historians now can access more expansive archival geographies than in the past, and the ease of access to some collections have had a strong impact among young scholars. Finally, the enhanced access to multiple archives have permitted historians to cross archival boundaries more often and that have a great impact in allowing more comprehensive and nuanced histories, with more voices appearing in the narratives and analyses. Beyond the possibility of comparative studies, digital access to far away archives has permitted scholars to incorporate perspectives from primary sources generated by different historical agents from different empires and regions about a given topic, which allows for studies with more diverse perspectives and voices from the past to emerge.

 The workshop used to meet in person on the campus of William & Mary. Since the pandemic, it has moved online. Do you think the future of the workshop is in-person or online and why?

FP: I think the online format brought some huge benefits, but it also has some drawbacks. Without a doubt, having the workshop online permits the participation from scholars from all over the globe, from different regions of the US, from South America, Europe, and beyond. And this expansive geography is certainly something that I would like to keep. Nevertheless, I find that extensive feedback on pre-circulated papers can be a bit more complicated over Zoom, especially because the online format seems to be more impersonal, which sometimes makes rigorous academic criticism seem less collegial. So, for the future, I envision hybrid events, in-person workshops that will count on more intimate sessions to discuss pre-circulated work in progress and an online part of the event that brings together people from all over the world.

 What might you suggest non-experts who are interested in the history of Rio de la Plata read in order to get a sense of the role this region has played in Vast Early American history?

FP: I think there are many important works that would speak to Vast Early America, and I would start by recommending an edited volume that was a product of the workshop itself and that brings together different essays on important topics that are also in the research agenda of VEA. The Rio de la Plata from Colony to Nations  (Palgrave 2021), brings together scholars from the US and South America to examine topics such as borderlands histories, slave trade and slavery, emancipation and racial politics, recruitment of soldiers for revolutionary wars, state formation, and beyond. Scholars of Vast Early America will certainly find it interesting to discover connections between Early America and the South Atlantic, be it through Dutch smugglers, British subjects in Rio de la Plata, networks of state building and educational reformers linking the US to Argentina, or simply from a comparative perspective on revolutionary movements, sovereignty, and the transition from empire/colony to nations.

Beyond this volume, I would suggest Lyman L. Johnson’s Workshop of Revolution (Duke 2011), Alex Borucki’s From Shipmates to Soldiers (UNM Press, 2015), Jeffrey Erbig’s Where Caciques and Map Makers Met (UNC Press, 2020), and Erika Edwards Hiding in Plain Sight (University of Alabama Press, 2020). Finally, for VEA scholars interested in the US presence in the Rio de la Plata by the turn of the nineteenth century, I have an article of my own, “No Such Thing as Neutral Trade: US Shippers in the Rio de la Plata” in Colonial Latin American Review Vol 31, Issue 1. 

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