JF: What led you to write The Global Refuge?
OS: My first book examined Anglo-American politics and religion during the late-1600s, and when I was conducting research I noticed that everyone was talking about Huguenots–the French Protestants who scattered around Europe in response to persecution by Louis XIV during the 1680s. Some of these refugees came to England and America, but beyond that, English people at all levels of society seemed obsessed with French persecution. This puzzled me because I knew that there were relatively few Huguenots in colonial America, and they had far less demographic staying power than other groups like Germans or Ulster Scots. I wanted to find out what made them so prominent, but I soon learned that to answer the question I would have to move beyond colonial America or even the British empire. So I expanded my gaze not just to Europe but to the global Huguenot diaspora, which included British America but extended to the Caribbean, South America, South Africa and the Indian Ocean. By taking a global approach I finally began to understand why (and how) the Huguenots played such a key role in imperial history.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of The Global Refuge?
OS: The Huguenots distinguished themselves in a world of empires by simultaneously promoting themselves as religious martyrs and potential producers. They played up their status as chosen people who had suffered under Catholic persecution — which appealed greatly to Protestant leaders — but they sealed the deal by discussing their skills and aptitudes in making things like silk and wine, which made them especially desirable settlers on imperial frontiers.
JF: Why do we need to read The Global Refuge?
OS: When I started writing this book almost a decade ago I had no idea how relevant it would be to our own political moment. Obviously refugees are in the news a lot now, and this book offers a great primer on an era when much of political discourse of refugees originated. (The word entered common English usage in the seventeenth century to describe the Huguenots.) In particular, it shows us that in previous eras, some leaders not only considered it a religious duty to help the Huguenots; they also believed that accepting these newcomers would be an economic windfall. As one political economist noted at the time, sometimes charity and self-interest can go together.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
OS: I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t fascinated by history. I grew up in a small town in Washington state that was especially proud of its past, and I worked as a teenager with local museums and preservation organizations. This interest in local history eventually transformed into curiosity about how North America developed over the longue durée. I love history because it simultaneously allows me to recover lost worlds while also understanding the real world that I live in a bit better.
JF: What is your next project?
OS: I am sticking with the Huguenots but moving back in time more than a century to the 1560s. A group of French Protestants attempted to establish a colony in Florida, which sputtered along for a few years before being wiped out by the Spanish. Despite its short duration I think it was quite important in establishing some of the patterns that would characterize the next few centuries of American colonialism. It also demonstrates how America was linked to the twin processes of Renaissance and Reformation that transformed sixteenth-century Europe.
JF: Thanks, Owen!