Professor Pens New Book


“The Republic Afloat,” a new book by Dr. Matthew Raffety, associate professor of history at the University of Redlands, shines a light on the often brutal and insular culture of the sea in the years before the Civil War.

“In addition to some exciting – and even harrowing – tales of mutiny, murder, and mayhem at sea, the book explores how seafarers helped give voice to some of the most essential identities in the early U.S. Republic,” Raffety said. “What it meant to be a man, a worker, and a citizen all found new definition coming out of violent altercations at sea and the legal system’s attempts to make sense of what happened. It was in cases dealing with seafarers that the judiciary first found concrete purpose in the national government, it was in these cases that many the rights of laborers were debated, and it was through these cases that the United States was first forced to define who ‘counted’ as an American citizen and what that title would mean.”

The book grew out of Raffety’s graduate work at Columbia University, with a majority of the research conducted while writing his dissertation.

“I was looking around inside federal court records and came across the testimony of several seafarers in a mutiny case,” he said. “What I had were the words of several participants—officers, sailors, and the captain—in a violent incident in New York harbor. I was immediately excited: so much was going on in the case. The men fought not only physically, but, after the fact in their depositions, about their sense of honor, their rights as men and laborers, the expectations of their craft, and even themselves as citizens of the still-young American republic. When I realized there were more than 1,000 such cases just being tried in New York’s federal courts before 1861, I knew I was onto something big.”

The manuscript changed dramatically after he began editing and revising the copy, and grew to cover more about the rise of the federal court system and U.S. consuls who heard complaints in foreign ports.

“Research trips to the consular records at the National Archives facility in Maryland and a summer fellowship at Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut helped immeasurably,” Raffety said.

The book was finished while Raffety taught, which resulted in “some late nights in my small, windowless office,” he said.

“It’s hard to find the necessary uninterrupted blocks of time I need to write new material, so much has to be done in the summers,” he said. “Teaching at Redlands in particular is unusually rewarding, but it is also something that can expand to fill all available time during the school year. On the other hand, being able to talk through some of the themes and ideas with colleagues and students here was both inspiring and helpful. I’m lucky to be a part of so bright and engaged a faculty. Generally, although time is an issue, I think working at an institution with such a focus on teaching is ideal for producing scholars, because you are surrounded by inquisitive minds who are enthusiastic about thinking and stretching themselves.”

With “The Republic Afloat” behind him, Raffety is looking ahead towards his next book.

“I’ve begun preliminary work on a new project that looks at some very public battles between the U.S. consular officials and American merchants in Havana in the 1830s, in a case that involved wrongful imprisonment, the illegal slave trade, and even a shadowy hit man known only as ‘Mr. S,’” he said. “Havana was a wild, wide open place then, as the main port of the last remaining Spanish colony in the New World. From the 1830s through Castro’s takeover in the 1950s, Americans turned to Havana to seek their fortunes by legal and by shadowy means. I’m not sure precisely where the evidence is taking me yet, but so far, I’m pretty excited to find out.”

Posted: Dec. 4, 2013
Written by: Catherine Garcia

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