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Joseph Calder Miller (1939-2019)

Joseph Calder Miller, 79, succumbed to an aggressive cancer on March 12, 2019.  He died at the Center for Acute Hospice Care in Charlottesville, Virginia, surrounded by his wife, Mary Catherine Wimer, and two of his children: Julia Miller and Calder Miller.  He is also survived by his son John Miller, and was preceded in death by his daughter, Laura Miller.  Among his other surviving family are his brother and sister in law, James and Marlene Miller and their family, and his ex-wife, Janet Miller, as well as a large extended Calder family.

Joe was a Professor emeritus at the University of Virginia, where he held the T. Cary Johnson Jr. Chair in the History Department, and also served as the Dean of Arts and Sciences (1990-95). In addition, Joe was elected President of the African Studies Association (2005-6) and President of the American Historical Association (1998).

Joe was born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the son of a local businessman. After graduating from Wesleyan University in 1961, he went on to get an MBA at Northwestern University, and returned to Cedar Rapids to go into business. He rapidly got bored. His father, who was then Chair of the Board of Governors of Coe College, suggested that he talk to Albert Schmidt, a history professor at Coe. Schmidt suggested that Joe look at one of the newer fields of history in Latin America or Africa. He applied to the newly-minted Program in Comparative Tropical History at the University of Wisconsin, and signed up for Jan Vansina’s seminar. He got hooked and never looked back. He received his M.A. in 1967 and his Ph.D. in 1972. His thesis was published as Kings and Kinsmen: Early Mbundu States in Angola (Oxford 1976); in the thesis Joe helped pioneer the use of oral evidence in historical scholarship by interpreting oral testimony symbolically, rather than literally, and provided a new understanding of state formation in precolonial Angola.

Joe’s magnum opus was Way of Death: Merchant Capitalism and the Angolan Slave Trade, 1730-1830(Madison 1988).  At 770 pages, the book is a pioneering study of the Portuguese South Atlantic trading empire and won the Herskovits Award from the African Studies Association (1989). It provides a thoroughly detailed study of the internal dynamics of the societies of West-Central Africa and skillfully integrates this history into an intercontinental perspective of the relationships in Africa, America, and Europe.  At the core of the book lies the basic conflict between African economic concepts based on the use value of goods and the power derived from control over people and the monetarized European commercial system. Joe drew upon his graduate training in business administration to bring a sophisticated appreciation of currency, debt, credit, markets, prices, and supply lines to his analysis of the slave trade. Way of Death remains one of the most thorough studies of the slave trade ever written

If the economics of slavery and the slave trade lay at the heart of his earlier work, Joe Miller’s most recent monograph, The Problem of Slavery as History: A Global Approach (Yale, 2012), examines slavery as a process, reflecting in part on the historical circumstances that made some people vulnerable to enslavement while inducing others to enslave them. More controversial than his other books, it compelled one reviewer to judge two chapters as path-breaking and challenging enough to call the book a “masterpiece.” The book was named by Choice as an Outstanding Academic Title. A Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship helped support its research.

In addition, Joe was concerned about the tools for studying history. He published an indispensable bibliography, Slavery and Slaving in World History (1999), with nearly 15,000 entries. Supplements were published in Slavery and Abolition and are now being produced on-line. He also authored dozens of influential articles in influential academic journals and edited or co-edited numerous essay collections, bibliographies, and encyclopedias.

During the forty- six years that he worked at the University of Virginia (he turned down other positions, including an invitation to join the History faculty at Harvard), Joe trained numerous graduates students and mentored and advised several who were not his students. He was a particularly influential editor of the Journal of African History (1990-97) where he was known for his rigorous editing and comments.

The highlight of his career occurred this past fall, after retirement, with two extremely special events.  First, he was inducted into the 2018 class of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, an exceptionally notable achievement recognizing his groundbreaking work over a long career.  Second, a colloquium in his honor, “Africa in Global History,” was organized by his former students, colleagues, and friends at the Harvard Center for African Studies.  During that day it was abundantly clear how significant Joe’s influence had been and would be going forward.

However, these facts about Joe do not begin to convey the depth of love and admiration that people had for him.  Some quotes from tributes pouring in from all over the world might better capture who Joe was in life.

“Your mentorship has been one of the great gifts in my life—which has been fundamentally reshaped by our relationship. My world is bigger, my imagination richer, and my thoughts more interesting because of you. Plus, it is quite literally because of you that I know how to write.”

“Joe had an infectious love of teaching and a passion for delving into history’s intellectual complexities. He taught me a working theory of history and modeled untiring intellectual curiosity and openness to the unconventional.”

“I have never met a scholar so intelligent, humble, and generous when dealing with both senior scholars and graduate students.”

“Joe was a rare academic who didn’t care at all where you came from, what you looked like, didn’t care for those normative signs of prestige and intellectual authority that so many in academia focus on. All he cared about were ideas and intellect, and truly the person and their potential as a scholar and a person.”

“He was a dear, dear friend to me: a passionate and compassionate, generous, kind, thoughtful man; an avid adventurer, and someone I could always count on for a word of encouragement, a smile, and lively, smart conversation.”

It seems fitting to close with a poem by Raymond Carver that embraced:

Late Fragment

And did you get what

you wanted from this life, even so?

I did.

And what did you want?

To call myself beloved, to feel myself

beloved on the earth.

A Celebration of Life service will be held in early summer when a memorial scholarship fund will be announced.

Kenda Mutongi, Mary Catherine Wimer and Martin Klein

Notable Publications

Kings and Kinsmen: Early Mbundu States in Angola, Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1976.

Equatorial Africa, Washington, DC: American Historical Association, 1976.

The African Past Speaks: Essays on Oral Tradition and History. Folkestone, England: Dawson; Hamden, CT: 1980

Way of Death: Merchant Capitalism and the Angolan Slave Trade, 1730–1830 Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1988.

Slavery: A Worldwide Bibliography, 1900–1982. White Plains, NY: Kraus, 1985.

New Encyclopedia of Africa, with John Middleton Detroit MI: Thomson/Gale, 2008.

Macmillan Encyclopedia of World Slavery, with Paul Finkelman. New York, NY: Macmillan, 1998.

Women and Slavery, with Gwyn Campbell and Suzanne Miers. Athens OH: Ohio University Press, 2008.

Children in Slavery around the World, with Gwyn Campbell and Suzanne Miers. Athens OH: 2010.

The Problem of Slavery as History. New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 2012.