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Uncommon Sense

By oieahc · May 03, 2022

"Peer review done right" WMQ author Kristie Flannery on her research and writing processes

WMQ 9 min read

Kristie Patricia Flannery (research fellow at IHSS, Australian Catholic University) is the author of “Can the Devil Cross the Deep Blue Sea? Imagining the Spanish Pacific and Vast Early America from Below” in the January 2022 issue of the William and Mary Quarterly. She answers some questions about her research and the process of submitting an article to the WMQ below.

How does the essay relate to your larger project and/or more general scholarly interests? 

It was during my doctoral research in Mexico City’s Archivo General de la Nación that I came across the Inquisition case at the center of this article. I was drawn in to the story of a young Mexican man who enslaved his soul to the devil as part of a plan to avoid being sent to the Philippines as a convict soldier, a particularly harsh punishment he was dealt for robbing a priest in the convent where he worked. The devil failed to fulful his promises. José María Rodríguez’s story was exciting and full of rich detail, with his demonic encounters taking places in streets that I had walked along; the laneway next to CDMX’s Convento de la Merced, and Manila’s Fort Santiago. 

All I knew in those early stages of dissertation research was that wanted to write about Spanish colonial rule in the Philippines from below (think, The Many-Headed Hydra in Luzon). What drove this project was a desire to understand how Spain – a small European country – managed to conquer and colonize a polity on the opposite side of the world. I was also intrigued by political loyalism; I wanted to comprehend why generations of people who we moderns think should have hated European empires collaborated with and supported them. The Philippines are a particularly interesting case because, like Cuba, the archipelago remained part of the Spanish empire through the early nineteenth-century wave of wars of independence that resulted in the dissolution of Spain’s American empire. I was, and continue to be, intrigued by the resilience of Spanish colonial rule in the Pacific. Surely, being born and raised in a settler society on this side of the Pacific Ocean pulled me to this region. 

My dissertation project has evolved into an almost-finished book manuscript that explores how piracy shaped Spanish colonial rule in the Philippines. What it reveals is that Indigenous people in Luzon and the Visayas and the large population of Chinese migrants and their descendants formed partnerships with the Spanish to fight against waves of pirate enemies. I figured out that the story of a Mexican forzado who enslaved his soul to the devil did not fit within the dissertation. But José María Rodríguez lingered in my mind, and after defending in 2019, I devoted time to thinking and writing about this rich case. 

If you could talk to one of your anonymous reviewers, what would you want to discuss? How has the essay changed since you first submitted it to the WMQ?

The WMQ’s peer review process led to substantial revisions. The title originally included #VastEarlyAmerica, hashtag included. This was a way of recognizing that much of the debate about the parameters of a ‘vast’ early America that influenced this article has played out on twitter and blogs, in addition to the more traditional scholarly spaces of debate. As it turns out, readers REALLY hated the hashtag. That was not a hill I was willing to die on. 

The published version is a much tighter, better organized, and better written version of what I originally submitted. Meatier changes include a more frank discussion of method, and spending more time situating José María Rodríguez in place. I realized that it was important to explore and explain how Rodríguez would have encountered the Philippines in Mexico City before he was sentenced to go to the islands as a convict soldier, and the character of the Manila he inhabited.  

I am grateful to the generous scholars who offered thoughtful and helpful feedback on several versions of this article. Peer-review done right presents a rare opportunity to discuss and debate our interpretations of sources and historical processes big and small. Knowing what people liked feels good. Knowing what they did not like forces you to revisit and strengthen your arguments, which feels less good but makes for stronger scholarship.

Studying the intellectual history of subalterns requires us to make evidentiary leaps within the “boundaries of plausibility.” For some reviewers, these leaps were an illegitimate method. They were just not convinced by my core claim that it is possible to recover and write about what Rodríguez, a convict soldier, thought about the Spanish Pacific. In their view, it would be theoretically possible to excavate and analyze how the forzado experienced of this transoceanic space, but how he conceptualized this space remains unknowable. For me, this was a point of irreconcilable difference. I am convinced, and I hope I can convince you, dear readers, that we can reconstruct how Rodríguez imagined this imperial space by interrogating his actions and words (preserved in his hand-written contract of enslavement with the devil, his testimonies recorded by a scribe, and witness testimonies relaying what he told them),and interpreting these in the context of what we know about the worlds he inhabited; the convents and calles of Mexico City, the floating city of the galleon ship, and the barracks and beaches of multiethnic Manila. We can also trace how his vision of this imperial space had a real world impact, ultimately strengthening the ties that bound together the Philippines and New Spain in the eighteenth century. This matters, because it shows us that subalterns contributed to bringing the ideas that shaped the global Spanish empire into being. 

WMQ articles are capped at 10,000 words (plus notes). If you had 5,000 more words to play with, how would the article be different?

If I had another 5000 words, I would entertain you with more historiography. Like most articles, mine initially much longer. A long discussion of the historiography of the Spanish Pacific fell victim to cuts, with significant sections surviving in the footnotes. I also cut down a much more detailed discussion of the devil and demonology in the early modern Iberian world and maritime Asia.

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