Joseph C. Miller (1939–2019)
Historian of World Slavery; Former AHA President
Joseph Calder Miller, 79, professor emeritus at the University of Virginia and former president of the American Historical Association, died in Charlottesville, Virginia, on March 12, 2019, from cancer. Miller held the T. Cary Johnson Jr. Chair in History and served as dean of arts and sciences (1990–95) at the University of Virginia. In addition to his presidency of the AHA (1998), he served as president of the African Studies Association (2005–06) and was one of the editors of the Journal of African History from 1990 to 1997. In 2018, he was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Miller was born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the son of a local businessman. After earning a BA from Wesleyan University in 1961 and an MBA at Northwestern University, he returned to Cedar Rapids to go into business. He soon decided to pursue an academic career and was accepted into the Program in Comparative Tropical History at the University of Wisconsin, where he studied with Jan Vansina. He received his MA in 1967 and his PhD in 1972; his thesis was published as Kings and Kinsmen: Early Mbundu States in Angola (1976). The book made an important contribution to the study of state formation and innovatively viewed oral traditions symbolically rather than literally. In 1972, he joined the faculty of the University of Virginia, where spent the next 46 years.
Miller’s most important work was Way of Death: Merchant Capitalism and the Angolan Slave Trade, 1730–1830 (1988), a massive study of the Portuguese African empire, the internal dynamics of Portugal’s African partners, and the slave trade’s links to Europe and Brazil. In this and in subsequent works, Miller brought to the study of slavery an appreciation of currency, debt, credit, markets, prices, and factors of supply. He often commented on how his MBA studies shaped his understanding of economic variables in historical change. Way of Death is one of the most exhaustive studies of the slave trade ever written; it won the Herskovits Prize of the African Studies Association for the best book in African studies in 1989.
Miller participated in countless conferences in all parts of the world and produced a stream of articles, book chapters, and edited books. In 2005, he was invited to give the first David Brion Davis Lectures at Yale University’s Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition. Published as The Problem of Slavery as History: A Global Approach (2012), the lectures pulled together many of his reflections on the 30,000-year history of slavery. Miller rejected the idea that slavery was a static institution in favor of one that focused not on slavery, but on slaving, which Miller treated as a process that constantly changed. He also produced a major bibliography, Slavery and Slaving in World History (1985), which had over 10,000 entries when first published and has been expanded in different forms over the years. At the time of his death, Miller was working on a global history of slavery.
Despite the demands of a busy career, Miller always found time for others. In October 2018, a colloquium was held in his honor at Harvard University, where many spoke of his generosity as a teacher, mentor, and colleague, his ability to communicate his passion for history, his skill as an editor, and his willingness to give of himself. Young scholars talked of how welcoming he was. “I have never met a scholar so intelligent, humble, and generous,” wrote one. Another spoke of his “infectious love of teaching and a passion for delving into history’s intellectual complexities.”
Joe Miller is survived by his wife, Mary Catherine Wimer, who with two of his children, Julia Miller and Calder Miller, were at his bedside when he died. He also leaves a son, John Miller, and was preceded in death by his daughter Laura Miller. Among his other surviving family members are his brother and sister-in-law, James and Marlene Miller, and their family, as well as his ex-wife, Janet Miller.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
University of Toronto (emeritus)
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