3 April 2024

Interview with Dr. Pernille Røge

By Gabriëlle La Croix.


Dr. Pernille Røge is an Associate Professor in History at the University of Pittsburgh in the United States. She is trained as a scholar of eighteenth century France and its colonial empire, with a broader interest in early modern European expansion. Her current research, and her second book project, focuses on the Danish colonial empire seen through the lens of foreigners and foreign capital as it comes to play a huge role for the Danish empire.



Q: What made you want to become a historian, or what made you interested in history?

I think like many of us who do historical research, I have always been interested in history and reading. I read a lot of history books when I was young, such as historical novels, but I did not think that I would want to be a historian. I actually trained for years to become a dancer and that allowed me to move around to other European countries. Then at some point I started missing studying. I always loved studying in school and so when I was in Paris, when I was still dancing, I broke my foot, and I took that as a sign that I had to dedicate my life to something else. I started studying social sciences, as well as history, because part of my thinking was that I could go back to Denmark and study engineering. Then I was lucky enough to do a course on the history of the French revolution while living in Paris. Paris as a city made it the perfect setting for the study of French history and the history of the French Revolution. I was able to go into the actual archives, and I was fascinated by having these primary sources in my hands. It was a mix of being in a place and then getting to study its history, which made me ultimately fall madly in love with that history.

I studied history because I loved it, but it was never the plan to become a historian. Then my undergraduate advisors suggested that I could keep going. Eventually I ended up at Cambridge for a master’s degree as well as a doctoral degree and then, somehow, I just never stopped. There is always this moment where you think: maybe this was always meant to be, this was always a plan, but then it must have been a very subconscious one because I am doing what I love doing but I did not, in a targeted way, set myself up to become historian and pursue that goal.


Q: Can you tell us something about the history department in Pittsburgh, the size of the department, and how your research fits into the research topics of this department?

Yes, the department over here you would consider a mid-sized department with around 40 faculty members in a range of different positions. I think we are close to the high twenties in terms of the number of tenure-track professors and then we have appointment stream faculty, as well as a few who are part time instructors. Traditionally, it has been a department that looked a lot at labor history and Atlantic history, and now, increasingly, it has become more world history focused because we have the World History Center here as well. So, many of my colleagues will work on a region, but within a transnational, trans-imperial, or global framework. So that is what a lot of people were doing here when I came. That was also partly what attracted me to coming here, because when I went on the job market I was working on the history of France and its colonies and I thought of that as a single field, within a single analytical framework. Yet there were a lot of people at the time who were advertising jobs where you would just look at France itself internally, or you would look at the colonies and be a colonial historian. When the posting for this job came up, they wanted somebody who did France and France overseas so I was really interested in the way that they were thinking about it as a combination.


Q: So you said you are a trained French (empire) historian, but you are working on the Danish empire and their Atlantic connections now. Was it a conscious decision to move away from French history (of empire)?

Here is the thing, I do not feel that I have moved away from it. I think I am exploring similar global processes in a particular time frame from a different angle. My first book was looking at the period from roughly mid-18th century into the 19th century, and I am looking at that same period now, from a different perspective. It is still getting at some of the similar historical conundrums and processes, because, to me, this period between 1750 and the 1850s is a fascinating period where, in terms of periodization, we think of it as a threshold to the modern period. We go from the early modern to the modern. It is a period where we have upheaval, imperial crisis, and then widespread revolution across the Atlantic. I explored a lot of the processes of both crisis and regeneration from an imperial perspective in my first book on France and what I look at now is a similar thing. I am still focusing on the Caribbean, with connection to West Africa, but also more so this time into the Indian Ocean.


Q: Your most recent publication Emulating Empires: Caribbean Free Ports, Economic Dualism, and European Imperial Rivalry, 1675-1767 (co-authored with Grant Kleiser) explores freeports across the Caribbean. Do you think this type of inter-imperial research is important when studying the Caribbean?

Yes, I think it is important. For a long time we have been conditioned to think through a national lens or to look at a single colonial empire. Then in the last couple of decades we have become very attuned to thinking about entanglements, trans-imperial movement, and interconnectivity. To do that type of history you come across language barriers, so people often will have to do so in teams. The piece you mentioned is a co-authored piece and I learned a lot from my co-author because I brought French, English, Scandinavian languages and some Dutch, but I don't have Spanish. Grant Kleiser works on freeports in English, French, and Spanish contexts. It was really interesting to be able to pull our skills and insights together and then to begin to see how these people were talking about the need to create freeports or emulate other free ports across the Caribbean. But I would never have been able to get access to the Spanish sources were it not for his skills. You really begin to see when you can move across these archival language barriers just how interconnected this moment was in terms of thinking about freeports, even in the Caribbean. You definitely get to unearth historical processes and interconnected histories that you cannot see if you do not think about it in this kind of cross imperial or trans-imperial manner.


Q: You studied in the UK and now you work in the US. Do you see a difference in the way research on the Caribbean or the wider Atlantic world is conducted in the US versus in Europe?

In terms of Atlantic history, yes, it is a big yes. I was trained at the University of Cambridge, where Atlantic history at that time was approached with scepticism, where people were more interested in thinking either through an imperial framework or with a world historical framework of analysis. There were not really any classes on Atlantic history, and there were not many people who were saying they were Atlanticists. I also for a long time did not think of myself as an Atlanticist. I thought of myself as an historian of empire. When I was hired over here people were saying, are you not doing Atlantic history? And I would say, no, I am doing imperial history. Then as a joke, one of my colleagues said, you are like a self-hating Atlanticist, or self-denying Atlanticist. So, now, after eleven years, I have been comfortable becoming an Atlanticist in the way it is understood over here [in the US]. I think here it is more of a catch-all term for people who work on some aspects of the world that is made up of Europe, Africa, and the Americas, with the Caribbean at the centre in some ways.


Q: When you work with people who work on Atlantic history in Europe now, do you still see these same tendencies for people to be doing history of Empire, or has that also shifted since you have come to the US?

I think that depends because, for instance, if you go to France, I think there are people who do Atlantic history, but usually within programs that look at American civilization, as they called it, and then you have people who look at French colonial empire who don’t necessarily think of themselves as Atlanticists. But I have a sense that in the Netherlands, Dutch academia has more embraced Atlantic history in the way they have done in the US. I think maybe for some in the UK, the Atlantic scepticism has also decreased a little. I think that has a lot to do with the domination of US academia in the Anglophone world and Anglophone scholarship more broadly. However, I do not think it is as prominent in Europe as it is here, and it is interesting to see whether it is going to continue to be, because certain places are beginning to think of vast or vaster early North America and some are moving a little bit away from the Atlantic framework. We will see what happens.


Q: So that is Atlantic history, but then when we think of Caribbean history, do you think there are differences in the way people approach that in the different scholarly traditions, or do you see more similarities there?

I think maybe over here [in the US], when you do Caribbean history, you think of it more as part of the Atlantic because that framework is more dominant here than in Europe. It seems to me that Caribbean history in the United States is often read through a lens that is shaped by its own history with race relations. I think the way that impacts US scholars who study the Caribbean can be detected in their scholarship and you also see how it is less pronounced in scholarship that comes out of Europe on the Caribbean. I also think the migration patterns have shaped that too. When you think about Caribbean migration to the United States, it's been more in that direction than it has been towards Europe, I would say.


Q: Do you see differences between research on the French empire and the ways historians study other empires?

One of the things I have noticed, and that's just reading around the literature, is that I think in, for instance, the Iberian case, they have much earlier been able to unearth voices of enslaved people and their agency in history than, for instance, scholarship on French colonial empire. I think that has to do in part, but not exclusively, because of their use of inquisition records. I was always envious of those scholars who were able to use inquisition records. Even though they are as problematic as we know they are, it was more easily accessible to get to that perspective. I think that some people who have been working with the archives in New Orleans and Louisiana for the French colonial empire now have been able to do the same. I think the availability of archives is crucial for the ways in which different traditions look at empire, as well as scholarly interest. If you think about just how robust the historiographies are on the Iberian, French, and British colonial empires, and I would say, increasingly also the Dutch, and yet how slim it still is on the Danish colonial empire, where today there are very few scholars working on it. Therefore, the ones who do work on it have a lot of work to do to even catch up, in order to be able to do comparative analyses with some of the work that has been done in the others, before we can then start to do additional new types of work.


Q: Where do you see the field of Caribbean history, as well as Atlantic history, going in the next few years?

I hope it is going to stay where it is at the moment for a little longer. I think in the last ten years or so, a lot of attention has gone to unearthing the histories of enslaved people, their mobility and their lives. I think we have only started to scratch the surface of that, so I hope that that will continue. I also think that the type of work that you [Gabriëlle La Croix] are doing, where you are tracing these kinds of interconnections and families that straddle multiple empires, which brings into view different kinds of geographical imaginaries or understandings of this space, has really been productive in a number of ways. I think in general it is a thriving field, and I hope we will just keep doing more of what we are doing. Of course there will come new things, but right now I do not see it at all as a field that is in stagnation. I think that a lot more exciting work will continue to come out of it.