The Joe Miller model

Remembering Joe Miller, a historian of eastern Angola and central Africa, who died at 79 on 12 March 2019.

Joe Miller. Image credit University of Virginia.

My well-worn copy of Joe Miller’s Way of Death: Merchants of Capitalism and the Angolan State (published by University of Wisconsin Press, 1988) tells its own story. Over 700 pages of dense and elegant prose, it was one of the first (and finest) books I read as a graduate student. Its history of the spread of mercantile goods in the commodity-poor environment of West-Central Africa, of accompanying spread of debt and dependency from Mbundu, Imbangala, and Lunda trade regimes through the Brazilian plantations to British financiers shaped my understanding of Central Africa in the mercantile world economy. As I honed my interests and as I spent more time in that part of the world, Way of Death provided research questions and methods for my PhD research. I came to understand how anthropological insights into kinship and dependency could be applied in historiography. Even as the methodology of Way of Death convinced me of the value of the archive, Joe’s focused historiography on the Imbangala and Mbundu resonated with my attempts to understand the historical significance of eastern Lunda oral traditions alongside the succession of Lunda political titles.

In my view, Joe made two key interventions. The first related to his doctoral research with Jan Vansina on eastern and Central Angolan Mbundu states. His research offered a more nuanced understanding of the Lunda and Mbundu oral traditions than Vansina’s Kingdoms of the Savanna (University of Wisconsin Press, 1966). He published this work “The Imbangala and the Chronology of Early Central African History,” in the Journal of African History (1972, and then in Kings and Kinsmen: Early Mbundu States in Angola (1976). (Vansina refused to republish Kingdoms of the Savanna in part because he found it so fundamentally revised by Miller’s work). The intervention here was firstly methodological—revolving around whether historians should understand characters in oral traditions as historical personas or political titles—with implications for the historiography and periodization of eastern Angola and central Africa.

His second key intervention emerged a decade later, with Way of Death. This intervention was conceptual, methodological, and empirical, of interest to a broad range of scholars. Way of Death is a carefully researched work that pioneered the use of Angolan and Portuguese archival sources underutilized in English-language scholarship. But, like all great works of scholarship, it introduced a conceptual shift. Prior to the 1970s our understanding of processes of enslavement and African forms of slavery were limited. During the 1970s and 1980s there was much discussion around African forms of slavery, in particular generated through the seminal Miers and Kopytoff conference and collection. Through a discussion of cases across the continent, Miers and Kopytoff related slavery in Africa to different forms of lineage dependency. Their analysis was conceptually interesting but comparative and static rather than historical. Miller’s revolutionary insight in Way of Death was to dynamize such forms of dependency by relating them to the movement of debt through the Atlantic world, and, along caravan routes, into the interior of Central Africa. This transformed our understanding of the political economy of the Atlantic world, and, in particular, of slavery and enslavement in the hinterland of Angola. (The influence of Miller on the work of scholars of Angolan slavery such as Roquinaldo Ferreira and Mariana Candido is clear.) For me, as a scholar of the interior, Miller’s work allowed for a new understanding of the relationships between power, wealth, and debt in early modern Central Africa.

As I became a teacher, Way of Death found its way into my classes, to student groans, but appreciation by the end. As I taught with it, I got to know it better, and its themes, arguments and methodologies kept inspiring my scholarship. It is one of the few books that I pick up, again and again, to revisit some historical theme, argument, or source (Joe’s referencing is so thorough that I have heard editors refer to a particularly broad and deep referencing of sources as the “Miller model”). Partly inspired by Way of Death, I turned to earlier periods that resembled its historical processes: the influx of foreign commodities spreading debt and dependency. I found Joe’s conceptualization of West-Central Africa during the 18th century helpful in understanding the Central African interior during the 19th century, as the slave and ivory trade extended there from west and east African coasts.

I began to write up my research on the 19th century about a decade ago; it was only then that I first met Joe in person. We talked in a Ghanaian slave fort that, ironically, was playing host to a conference on the end of the slave trade. He seemed friendly enough; I handed him my conference paper, mumbling about how it needed work. “I will read the paper,” he told me, “but I do not take apologies.” I suppose he meant it lightly—it was terrifying. He sat in the row in front of me on our return trip to the United States and fell asleep while reading my paper. Well, that was that, I thought.

A few weeks later, he sent me the kind of detailed comments that few can write or take the time to write: deep, engaging comments that make a difference. He considered what I was trying to say, if I had evidence for these claims, and how better to present the arguments. I struggled with the comments; some of the most worthwhile months of my professional life were spent responding to them.

In our last encounter, a few months ago, I complained to Joe about my recent departmental administrative tasks. “They encourage us to be narcissistic,” he chuckled, “and then expect us to get along.” In Joe’s final email to me, commenting on something I had written, he wrote, “History is nothing if not ironic.” A final irony: Joe was one of the least narcissistic people I’ve ever met. His professional life remains a model for collegiality, for understanding, and for generosity. His hard work, dedication, and sheer brilliance shaped how generations will think about African history.

Further Reading