In Memoriam

Anthony John R. Russell-Wood (1940-2010)

Lauren Benton, February 2011

Influential historian of colonial Brazil and the Portuguese World

Anthony John R. Russell-Wood, Herbert Baxter Adams Professor of History at Johns Hopkins University, died at his home in Maryland on August 13, 2010. He was 70 years old and had been a member of the history faculty at Johns Hopkins University since 1971.

A.J.R. Russell-Wood, known as John, was born in Wales and spent most of his childhood in the Lancashire region of England. He completed undergraduate and graduate degrees at Oxford, where he was a star squash player and came late to a love of history, encouraged by Charles Boxer, Sir Peter Russell, and Hugh Trevor-Roper. He became one of his generation’s most influential historians of colonial Brazil and the Portuguese world, writing or editing 10 books and producing scores of articles. His prize-winning first book, Fidalgos and Philanthropists: The Santa Casa da Misericórdia of Bahia, 1550–1755, mined underutilized archives in Brazil to create the first serious study of this key colonial institution. Reprinted many times, his pathbreaking book The Black Man in Slavery and Freedom in Colonial Brazil was ahead of its time in exploring the lived experience of slaves, the divergent regional trajectories of slavery, and the role of black brotherhoods in Brazilian social and economic life.

As Russell-Wood’s vision broadened to take in the global Portuguese empire, his work became broadly influential in the fields of world history and the history of European empires. His book A World on the Move: The Portuguese in Africa, Asia, and America, 1415–1808, and its paperback version, The Portuguese Empire, 1415–1808, explored the movement of Portuguese subjects across world regions usually studied in isolation. Russell-Wood also served as series editor for the 31-volume Ashgate series An Expanding World: The European Impact on World History, 1450–1800. In addition to overseeing the series, he contributed as editor and co-editor of numerous volumes, including the two-volume Local Government in European Overseas Empires, 1400–1800.

The breadth of John Russell-Wood’s interests was stunning. He contributed to administrative history, the history of religion, art history, the history of technology, the history of medicine and public health, history of the family, migration and urban history, historiography, and the study of women, race, and slavery. In several subfields—as in the history of slavery in Brazil and the study of local government in empires—his work set the standard for several generations of scholars. Russell-Wood’s teaching displayed the same impressive range. He wrote that he was “a firm believer” in making the study of history “enjoyable and fun,” and to that end he designed courses to grip undergraduates’ imagination: “Shipwreck and Empire,” “The Age of Exploration,” “Gold and Society.”

John Russell-Wood was also a gifted and beloved mentor of graduate students. He demanded hard work and insisted on high standards, occasionally conveying mild disappointment or skepticism with a gesture as subtle as a raised eyebrow or a single dry remark (often funny, but never mean). I remember his commenting on an exam in Portuguese I had struggled to pass by wryly complementing me on my Spanish. His praise, when it inevitably came, brought real satisfaction. The mix of encouragement and high expectations worked wonderfully; all his graduate advisees finished their degrees, some in record time, and all found university positions.

Former student Consuelo Novais observed that Russell-Wood commanded “iron discipline” but that his “initial hard attitude was a wax mask that could not resist the warmth of his generosity.” That generosity led him to invite students stranded in Baltimore to share Thanksgiving with his family. Many remember not just his kindness but also—when it was needed—his deft problem solving. Novais recalls arriving at Russell-Wood’s office with her two children on her first day at Johns Hopkins in a panic about housing and schools; with his usual calm and good humor, Russell-Wood quickly got on the phone and made all the arrangements. When no crisis was at hand, he was sometimes known to offer students and colleagues strong Brazilian cane liquor, cachaça, and he could be counted on to turn some office meetings into storytelling sessions. 

Departmental colleagues report that they regarded him as something of a sage about university politics. He completed two terms as department chair at Johns Hopkins, and naturally assumed the role of a mentor for junior colleagues. Beyond Hopkins, he served in a variety of public service positions, most notably as chair for the Maryland Committee for the Humanities, for which he received citations from the state of Maryland and the city of Baltimore. His honors spanned three continents and included being named Commander of the International Order of Merit of the Misericordias; honorary citizen of Salvador, Bahia; fellow of the Royal Historical Society in Britain; and recipient of the Portuguese National Order of Knighthood, Commander of the Order of Dom Henrique, an honor conferred by the president of Portugal.

Throughout his life, Russell-Wood was an avid outdoorsman and lover of adventure. He traveled widely, preferring back roads and second-class train compartments to luxury. His former student Carmen Alveal remembers her surprise on learning that on a recent trip to Brazil Russell-Wood shunned air travel and logged thousands of miles by bus to traverse the country. Closer to home, and in his native Wales, he loved to cycle, sail, hike, and go bird watching. 

Though gregarious by nature, John Russell-Wood was also deeply private about the rich family life he shared with his wife of 37 years, Hannelore, sons Karsten and Christopher, and their families, including four grandchildren. His intellectual legacy is apparent to all: he leaves a profound influence on Brazilian history and the history of the Portuguese world, and a positive mark on all those who knew him through his work.

—Lauren Benton
New York University