JHI Circle of Fellows Spotlight—Eric Jennings

November 16, 2022 by Sonja Johnston - A&S News

Eric T. Jennings (Ph.D. University of California-Berkeley, 1998) is Distinguished Professor of France and Francophone History. His areas of expertise include modern France, French colonialism, decolonization, and the francophone world. Eric is one of the JHI's Faculty Research Fellows for 2022-23.

JHI: What are your main research interests?

EJ: I am a historian of modern France, French colonialism and the Francophone world.  I have published books on everything from French colonial spas as sites of colonial cleansing (Curing the Colonizers), to the role of French colonies in the two world wars.  My previous 6-month JHI fellowship supported research for my Free French Africa in World War II.  That book revealed that the archetypal member of the French Resistance in 1940 and 1941 was not a beret-coiffed white fighter from the Alps, but rather an African conscript from the lands that today comprise the Central African Republic, Chad, Cameroun, Gabon, and the Republic of Congo.  My latest book, Escape from Vichy, chronicled the exodus of some five thousand refugees who left embattled Europe for the ambiguous haven of Martinique during World War II.  Geographically, my interests span the entire modern French colonial world, and I have published on Madagascar, Réunion, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Tunisia, Martinique and Guadeloupe, and Central Africa, most notably.  I have even written a piece on the tiny French isles of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, off the coast of Newfoundland.

JHI: What project(s) are you working on at the JHI and why did you choose it (them)?

EJ: My current project, generously supported by the JHI, is a world history of vanilla.  Commodity chain histories have been popular for several decades now.  I draw inspiration from studies of sugar, cotton, indigo, cocoa, coffee, tea, tobacco, porcelain, even guano. However, very few have tackled the history of vanilla.  I suspect this has to do with the detective work involved in following the archival trail, which has taken me to four continents.  Quantities were rarely measured in tons until the 20th century, and so the stuff is hard to trace.  Seldom does one stumble upon a file entitled “vanilla.”

Unlike cotton, vanilla does not epitomize the “remaking of global capitalism” in the modern era.  Nor did it drive slavery, although I show that an enslaved teenager did transform the sector.  Vanilla’s mass, multi-continental production waited until the era of abolition in the second half of the nineteenth-century, long after the sugar, cotton, tobacco and indigo plantation systems emerged in the 17th century.  Vanilla certainly did not contribute to the rise of an industrial proletariat.  Perhaps because it never made an affordability turn, becoming a cheap mass commodity in the manner of cotton, sugar, or even rubber, vanilla tells a rather different story.  By the late nineteenth century, synthetic vanillin had begun to challenge real vanilla. In other words, Vanilla tells a more fractured and contingent story.

And yet, vanilla itself was and remains everywhere. It serves as an ingredient in everything from crème brûlée to ice cream floats and Coca-Cola.  It is remarkably mutable.  From Icelandic vínarterta torte to Japanese purin, Austrian vanillekipferl, Italian panettone, and French madeleine, vanilla provides a key flavoring component to iconic national dishes.  Consumers tell of its comforting, even nostalgia-inducing effects.  My book will shed light on all of these meanings caked into vanilla.  

JHI: What are you hoping to experience this year as a JHI Fellow? What are you most looking forward to?

EJ: My goal this year is to digest the materials I have researched and put pen to paper.  The vanilla book is under contract with Yale University Press, and my hope is to finish it this year.  

JHI: Share something you read/watched/listened to recently that you enjoyed/were inspired by.

EJ: I have been reading widely about the history of the South Pacific recently, and have learned a great deal about bio-transfers (deliberate and inadvertent), of everything from pigs and rats to breadfruit.

JHI: What is a fun fact about you?

EJ: I was an undergraduate at the University of Toronto from 1988 to 1992, and for two summers, I served as a U of T tour guide.  Back then, the tours had two objectives, which sometimes overlapped: presenting the university to prospective students, and highlighting the St. George campus’ historical buildings.