Patrick Manning Biography

By Yinghong Cheng, Delaware State University
From the Presidential Address booklet, 2017 AHA Annual Meeting

Patrick Manning in AfricaExactly 50 years ago, in 1966, a 25-year-old Patrick Manning took up residency in Porto-Novo, Dahomey, a former French colony that is now Benin. As an MS in African history at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Pat was the recipient of a Foreign Area Fellowship Program award from the Ford Foundation that allowed him to immerse himself in the West African country’s national library and archives. This photo was taken outside the library at which two of those pictured alongside Pat worked.

Looking a bit shy amongst his confident Dahomean friends, Pat was learning a great deal during his first trip to Africa, not only because of what he read in the library and archives and observed on tours of the country, but also from the unexpected circumstances he faced. Having contracted malaria just one month after his arrival, Pat remained on medication throughout most of his stay, and his field research fellowship was cut short. He rushed back to the United States in early 1967 and completed his dissertation “An Economic History of Southern Dahomey, 1880–1914” in 1969, but it would take another research trip to Porto-Novo in the summer of 1973 to turn the dissertation into a book.

As an AHA president specializing in both African history and world history, Pat has very few precedents. A notable one was Philip Curtin, Pat’s mentor at Madison whose AHA presidency took place nearly 35 years ago. A well-recognized historian, Pat nonetheless has something in his resume not so common among his peers: he majored in chemistry at the California Institute of Technology (BA 1963) and taught from 1968 to 1982 at Cañada College in the San Francisco Bay Area—a community college rather than a research university.1 It was not until 1984, 15 years after obtaining his PhD, that Pat joined the Department of History and African American Studies at Northeastern University as a tenure-track assistant professor, a position most of his peers sought shortly after completing their dissertations. Those 15 years were well spent, demonstrating precisely the perseverance and discipline that brought Pat to Northeastern in mid-career. In addition to his first book—Slavery, Colonialism, and Economic Growth in Dahomey, 1640–1960, published by Cambridge University Press in 1982—Pat had also published research articles in the American Historical Review, Canadian Journal of African Studies, and African Historical Studies. As an American historian of Africa, Pat stayed well connected with colleagues in Canada, France, England, Senegal, and Benin.

Pat’s publications had by then contributed to discussions sparked by Philip Curtin’s groundbreaking work on slavery’s impact on the Americas and Africa, a significant development in scholarship of the Atlantic slave trade and modern world history. Using statistics to evaluate a much broader range of historical records on slave imports in the Americas, Curtin’s The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census (1969) stimulated interest in filling in the details on slave exports from Africa. After participating in a conference at Colby College on the subject in 1975, Pat researched the number of slaves exported from Dahomey and concluded that around two million slaves—or one-fifth of Curtin’s estimate of the entire trans-Atlantic slave trade—were exported from Dahomey from the 17th to the 19th centuries, most from within two hundred kilometers of the coast.2 This population drain, Pat argued, led to the region’s demographic decline. The effects of the slave trade and associated modes of commodity exchange between this country and the world under European domination significantly determined the course of the Dahomean economy and contributed to its status as a relatively poor African nation in the 20th century.

For Pat, research on the Francophone and continental African slave trade, and its subsequent impact on African economic development, marked the beginning of a lifelong intellectual journey to understanding the global past in order to foreground African experiences. His interpretation sees Africa and its people as active agents in the creation of the modern world rather than passive recipients of change initiated by other races and ethnicities. This emphasis not only generates a truthful historiography concerning a continent and its peoples, but demands historical justice for humanity more broadly. In such a history, socioeconomic changes occur at the cost of particular groups of people whose experiences are frequently marginalized or ignored entirely in grand historical narratives. That commitment to justice has driven Pat’s scholarly quests and sustained him in difficult circumstances throughout his career.

Pat first charted African history by positioning his regional and continental analysis within the context of the global economy’s evolution from colonialism to capitalism and from slavery to free trade. As he pointed out in his first book some 35 years ago, “[t]his long history of interaction between the local and world economies . . . indicates the necessity of viewing this West African economy in a wider context. It also indicates that no picture of the world economy is complete without including Africa.”3 Ten years later, he pivoted from an economic point of view to a broader perspective that questioned the very concept of Western civilization, writing, “I want to give particular emphasis to the value of the work done by African slaves—in the Americas, in Africa, and in the Orient—because the tradition of racist ideology in the last 150 years has done so much to deny their importance in constructing the world we live in as well as to deny that the underdevelopment of Africa resulted in part from their forced migration. The very term, ’western civilization,’ which we use to describe the continents of Europe, North and sometimes South America, reflects this denial of Africa’s role in the modern world.”4

In his most recent works, Pat has systematically demonstrated the discrepancy between the importance of Africa and people of African descent in shaping the modern world, and the inadequate attention they have received in academic discussions of this sweeping historical process. As he put it, “the history of Africans and people of African descent, a complex story in itself, lies in the center of the history of all humanity,”5 but “the main interpretation of modern world history gives brief references to the experience of black people—discussing enslavement, emancipation, decolonization, and civil rights campaigns—but stop short of situating these references in the central narratives of constructing the modern economy, national identity, governance, or knowledge and culture.”6

The changing sociopolitical circumstances left in the aftermath of the social movements of the 1960s have to a great extent elevated African history and the black experience in world historical narratives. But by comparison to other continents and peoples, Pat argues, their treatment remains marginal and perfunctory, sometimes merely a courtesy acknowledgement. The roots of that problem, Pat now believes, are deeper and broader than a simple racist and Western-centric world view would suggest, but instead have much to do with the concept of the “modern.” This observation results in part from Pat’s shifting focus from slavery and economic history to global migrations and the black diaspora. To Pat, these two movements should be regarded as part of the participation of Africa and its people in the development of the modern world, much as we think of “the West’s” expansion through colonization and the dissemination of its cultural and political achievements. Research in these two fields has led him to identify a much broader spectrum in which Africa and people of African descent exerted influence on the formation of the modern world.

Research on migration and diaspora have prompted Pat to propose a new approach to our understanding of “modern” in the belief that “the static worship of central places that still reigns supreme in the academic conceptualization of society.” By “static worship” he means an emphasis on institutions, centers, states, systems, policies—the more physically stabilized and enduring structures in modern society. An alternative emphasis on fluid and flexible forces and dynamics—such as networks, mixes, exchanges, hinterlands, borders, contact zones, all of those connective elements created and maintained through migration and diaspora—would make visible Africa and people of color. Pat has begun examining popular culture as a means through which to view the impact of Africa on global modernism with more diverse sources of cultural creation and expression. There is no doubt that people of African, Caribbean, and South Asian descent (to name just a few diasporic populations) have contributed significantly to contemporary performing and visual arts, playing an important role in the appearance of the “modern.”7 Pat would like to see more attention paid to the interplay between musicians in non-Western cultures and those in Paris, London, and Los Angeles, say, rather than submit to the perceived dominance of “a US-based juggernaut of MTV.” Among world historians, Pat is one of the few to consider pop culture of a multi-racial and multi-ethnic nature in grand global terms.

Pat realizes that his “view contrasts with the leading sociological interpretations of modernity and the leading historical interpretations of the modern world, which consign Africa and the African diaspora to the footnotes.”8 But by distinguishing these fluid and flexible forces from more static and stable institutions in shaping the modern, Pat finds a hidden cognitive default—a “flaw” in our “historical logic” that tends to leave Africa and black people out of our perception of the modern. His interpretation helps clarify a common phenomenon: why many people who are by no means racially prejudiced have shown so little consideration of Africa and people of color in accounting for the creation of the modern world.

Even when judged by the measure of their impact on political and institutional changes on a global scale, people of African descent are not absent. Pat’s recent interpretation of the two historical eras of radical global social transformations makes this clear. Studying the years surrounding 1789, Pat unites the struggle for independence in Haiti with abolitionist movements in Europe and the Americas and the revolutionary movements in the Atlantic world that resulted in the creation of a new political order associated with republicanism, democracy, and the concept of universal humanity. Re-thinking the years surrounding 1989, Pat sees the decades-long struggle against apartheid in South Africa as part of global trend towards democracy and freedom in an era’s whose dramatic political events are typically depicted as involving exclusively eastern European and Chinese citizens fighting against communist authoritarian regimes. Pat sees parallels between these two eras and the events taking place in Africa (and in global black communities). None were mere historical coincidence but were, instead, evidence of a vast network—a circulation of ideas and information and people—between geographically remote areas affected by common trends (although technologies of communication and transportation differed significantly between the two eras).9

Pat began as an African economic and social historian before establishing himself as a world historian and he sees a “historical logic” to this expansion of research interests. Philip Curtin also began with African history and ended with a reputation as a leading world historian, eventually pioneering the program in world history in the graduate program at Johns Hopkins University. Under Curtin’s influence, the research questions Pat pursued as a graduate student had the potential to address issues on a global scale; his studies of migration and the black diaspora were part of a natural progression. In terms of both knowledge and approach, they bridge African and black studies and world history. But Pat’s devotion to world history reached beyond those scholarly connections to the demands of an era—just as the passion for African history had three decades prior: an increasingly networked world requires that its historians provide interpretations at a scale capable of revealing the historical interconnectedness behind current trends.

Since the 1990s, at a moment when world history as a discipline was in its nascent stage, Pat has concerned himself with legitimating it as a field of teaching and research. Despite thought-provoking theoretical frameworks and path-breaking research pursued by prominent historians since at least the post-World War I era, a career commitment to world history could be seen as a maverick choice when Pat made it and was rare among established historians. Some world historians made contributions to the field only after first establishing themselves as specialists of particular nations or events. Others did not cast their work as world history but were only later acknowledged as such. As an established Africanist, Pat has seen himself as a “full-time” world historian since the late 1980s, assuming the responsibilities of leading theoretician, practitioner, and advocate for this emerging field.

“What is world history?”—this remains a question that world historians receive from a range of audiences and implies a comparison or correlation between this and other fields of historical studies. Can we perceive of world history in the same way that we think of, say, American history, East Asian history, history of the Second World War or of modern science—each of which we can categorize within units of space and or time? We can easily grasp just how these geographies or events become subjects of scholarly observation and investigation, but does world history allow the same access? There are no easy answers to these questions and Pat himself cautions that “the definition of world history is open to debate.” Yet its rapid development as a field of study since the early 1990s attests to its legitimacy, workability, and wide appeal as an academic field.

In response to these questions, Pat shows more concern for clarity than for theoretical elaboration. Navigating World History (2003), his most important monograph in this regard, resembles a field manual for world historians with research, teaching, and program-building advice geared especially towards those just beginning their academic careers. His definition of world history is concise: “To put it simply, world history is a story of connections within the global human community. The world historian’s work is to portray the crossing of boundaries and the linking of systems in the human past.” And contrary to the assumptions of those new to the field, it “is far less than the sum of total of all history.”10 One metaphor Pat employs to translate his concept of world history into a layperson’s language: a world historian is not a world conqueror but a world traveler. World conquerors aiming to dominate the world are doomed to fail; world travelers, on the other hand, focus on certain interests via well-planned routes and leave meaningful legacies. World history is not primarily a field of specialized knowledge traversing specific areas or themes but an approach, a perspective, and a vision that addresses the common human experience. This characteristic openness and accessibility makes world history a practical pursuit for historians of all stripes and explains why many historians have made contributions to the field without regarding themselves as its practitioners.

Pat’s 21st-century publications expanded the breadth of his research even further, cementing his reputation as an innovative figure who deepens the field in relation to other social sciences. Having engaged in many topics and themes typical of historical studies, his recent work has increasingly involved subjects not traditionally undertaken by historians.

In “Homo sapiens Populates the Earth: A Provisional Synthesis, Privileging Linguistic Data,” an article published in the Journal of World History, Pat applied newly obtained results and methods in genetics to reinterpret the origin and dissemination of language groups at a global scale. This approach significantly expanded the scope of his earlier research on human migration. For Pat, this intricate, multidisciplinary engagement showcased the ways that “geneticists, paleontologists, archaeologists, and earth scientists have tended increasingly to overcome the parochialism of their disciplines . . . to meet on the terrain of world history to revolutionize our understanding of the early life of Homo sapiens.”11 In another recent article, titled “Epistemology,” Pat put on his philosopher’s hat in order to analyze the nature and categorize the types of knowledge essential to world history.

As it matured as an academic field, Pat moved on to defining and establishing world history data, a daunting task he began to propose as early as the late 1990s. Inspired by global collaboration on worldwide data within the natural sciences—especially on topics related to climate change and genetics—Pat believes that the time has come for world history as a discipline to have such data of its own. The methods and goals of such a project resemble those of the natural sciences: to offer world historians a comprehensive database for examining significant long-term patterns in global social change over the last 400 years, and for explaining to policy makers the historical backgrounds of current trends. Now underway at the Collaborative for Historical Information and Analysis (CHIA), based at the University of Pittsburgh, the project has already produced some initial results.12

As a leading world historian, Pat has applied considerable effort to institutional development, program building, student advising, and consultation with various groups. The PhD program in world history at Northeastern University—which he created in 1994 along with the World History Center and World History Resource Center—was the first such program in American higher education. Pat was the committee chair for 14 students there and an advisor to many others. Since moving to the University of Pittsburgh as Andrew W. Mellon Professor of World History in 2005, he has served as the primary advisor for five PhD students and as a committee member for a dozen more. With support from the NEH, he created World History Network, Inc., and after almost 20 years devoted to world history, Pat found at the University of Pittsburgh the institutional support he felt the field deserved. With funding from the Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences and supported by the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of History, Pat became the founder and first director of its World History Center. Under his leadership from 2008 to 2015, the center grew into the foremost institution for research, graduate study, and national and international collaboration in global history.

Pat sees the field of world history as an arena for international academic collaboration and has played critical role in such collaborations between world historians in the US and elsewhere. With his participation and organization, the Network of Global and World History Organizations (NOGWHISTO) was created in Dresden in 2008, and recognized in 2010 as the official organization for world history within the International Committee for Historical Sciences (CISH). The World History Center at Pitt and the World History Network, Inc., played a key role in the formation of three NOGWHISTO affiliates: the Asian Association of World Historians, the African Network in Global History, and the Latin American Network of Global Historians. Pat’s active affiliation with world historians in Asian countries—including China, Korea, Japan, India, Singapore, and some Arabic Gulf nations—deserves special mention. The establishment of the Asian Association of World Historians (AAWH) particularly benefited from his experience as an organizer of world history activities and a mediator between scholars of different backgrounds. AAWH has published Asian Review of World Histories since 2013, a peer-reviewed biannual of world history which recently joined the ranks of Journal of World History and Journal of Global History, two major international forums in the field from an Asian perspective.

Pat was born to a working-class family in southern California in 1941, just as the US was entering World War II. His father was a factory worker and an active unionist with a strong interest in books while his mother, also an avid reader, was a professional artist—some of whose wonderful pieces still hang on the walls of Pat’s residence. As a scholar and a lover of art, Pat inherited a family tradition. Born in a tumultuous era and maturing in the midst of the dramatic social changes of the 1960s, Pat’s scholarly pursuits can be seen as a deliberate choice in a time of turmoil to seek historical justice for overlooked peoples and to advocate on behalf of the universality of the human experience. In both African/black history and world history, he has been more than a scholar; Pat is a public intellectual.

Throughout his career, the word that has best described Pat is optimism, not only with regard to the future of his discipline, but also with regard to the possibility of absorbing new knowledge, methodologies and approaches from entirely different disciplines. Challenges will arise, and Pat will continue to tackle them with the energy and optimism that have characterized his impressive career.


1. After receiving his PhD and before coming to Northeastern, Pat had two one-year visiting positions at McGill (1972–73), and taught at Bryn Mawr College (1982–84) as lecturer among his many other nontenure positions.

2. Patrick Manning, Slavery, Colonialism and Economic Growth in Dahomey, 1640–1960 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 9.

3. Manning, Slavery, Colonialism, and Economic Growth, xiv.

4. Patrick Manning, “Migration of Africans to the Americas: The Impact of Africans, Africa, and the New World,” in Slave Trades, 1500–1800: Globalization of Forced Labour, ed. Manning (Hampshire, UK: Variorum, 1996), 80.

5. Patrick Manning, The African Diaspora: A History through Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009), xv.

6. Patrick Manning, “Locating Africans on the World Stage: A Problem in World History,” Journal of World History 26, no. 3 (2016): 608.

7. Manning, African Diaspora; Patrick Manning, Navigating World History: Historians Creating a Global Past (New York: Palgrave, 2003), xi.

8. Manning, African Diaspora, xvii.

9. Patrick Manning, “1789–1792 and 1989–1992: Global Interaction of Social Movements,” World History Connected 3, no. 1 (2005); “Linking Social Movement Networks, 1989 to 1992: Southeast Asia, Africa, and South America,” in Social Movements and World-System Transformation, eds. Jackie Smith, Michael Goodhard, Patrick Manning, and John Markhoff (Routledge, 2016).

10. Patrick Manning, Navigating World History, 3.

11. Patrick Manning, “Homo sapiens Populates the Earth: A Provisional Synthesis, Privileging Linguistics Data,” Journal of World History 17, no. 2 (2006): 115–16.

12. Patrick Manning, Big Data in History (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).


The African Diaspora: A History through Culture. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.

Big Data in History (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

“Homo sapiens Populates the Earth: A Provisional Synthesis, Privileging Linguistics Data,” Journal of World History 17, no. 2 (2006): 115–58.

“Linking Social Movement Networks, 1989 to 1992: Southeast Asia, Africa, and South America.” In Social Movements and World-System Transformation, edited by Jackie Smith, Michael Goodhard, Patrick Manning, and John Markhoff. New York: Routledge, 2016.

“Locating Africans on the World Stage: A Problem in World History.” Journal of World History 26, no. 3 (2016): 605–45.

“Migration of Africans to the Americas: The Impact of Africans, Africa, and the New World.” In Slave Trades, 1500–1800: Globalization of Forced Labour, edited by Patrick Manning. Hampshire, UK: Variorum, 1996.

Navigating World History: Historians Create a Global Past. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

“1789-1792 and 1989–1992: Global Interaction of Social Movement,” World History Connected 3, no. 1 (2005).

Slavery, Colonialism and Economic Growth in Dahomey, 1640–1960. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

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