Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

Richard B. Sheridan: The Making of a Caribbean Economic Historian

Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

Richard B. Sheridan: The Making of a Caribbean Economic Historian

Article excerpt

In the opening decades of the twentieth century, three United States historians, Ulrich B. Phillips, Frank W. Pitman and Lowell J. Ragatz, were instrumental in establishing economic history as a separate category in British Caribbean historiography. Up to that point, the economic history of the British West Indies had usually been treated as part of the panoramic general studies produced by individuals who were historians by "avocation rather than vocation".1 In a series of influential books and articles, these U.S. historians established the parameters of present-day discussion on the slave plantation in British Caribbean historical writing.2 As B.W. Higman has asserted, the work of these academic historians provided "those central, unifying themes of Caribbean history, the nature of slave society and the economics of slavery".3 Richard B. Sheridan's scholarly output, with its emphasis on sugar and slavery in the British Caribbean, falls within that distinguished U.S. historiographical tradition. This essay assesses Sheridan's contribution to the literature on Caribbean economic history, with particular reference to the intellectual influences on his scholarship, his thematic concerns and the methodologies and source materials he has employed.

Richard Sheridan was born on 10 February 1918, the eldest son of Bert and Olive Sheridan, in Emporia, Kansas, then a small town with a population of approximately 13,000. The Sheridans were Quakers and for Richard, whose early social life centred on the church, religion was a formative influence on his outlook and temperament: "I imbibed the Quaker beliefs in pacifism, a modest but not austere lifestyle, and the Protestant virtues of honesty, thrift, industry and good works".4 As Sheridan has admitted, the teachings of the Quaker faith were also to shape his political views.

Sheridan completed both his high school and undergraduate education in Emporia. He graduated from the local high school in May 1936 and entered the Kansas State Teachers College later that year, where he initially took pre-engineering courses. Without the necessary background in science and mathematics that would have made engineering a viable option, Sheridan turned reluctantly to courses in history and government, business, economics and education in his sophomore year. Although he demonstrated an aptitude for and excelled in history and government courses, the difficulty involved in securing a teaching appointment in those areas at the height of the Depression ultimately dictated Sheridan's academic concentration. As a result, he decided on a Bachelor of Science in Commerce degree, taking courses in typewriting, shorthand, business arithmetic, bookkeeping, economics and marketing. In addition, he completed courses in history and government as his minor field of study.

After graduating in 1940, Sheridan taught business skills in two small-town high schools in his native state: in Edna in the southeast in 1940-1941 and Bancroft in the fall of 1941. In December 1941, he left for Washington, D.C., where he secured an appointment as a clerk typist in the Quartermaster Corps of the Army, after taking a civil service examination. That month was also marked by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and U.S. entry into World War II. Sheridan received notices from his draft board in Emporia with increased regularity and urgency, and finally decided to enlist in the Navy. He was initially made a Yeoman Third Class in the United States Naval Reserve but (as a college graduate) successfully applied for commission as an Ensign. He saw active service during the war on the USS Kretchmer which, among its several functions, escorted convoys within the Caribbean and tankers transporting high octane aviation fuel between Curaçao and Naples, Italy. Sheridan ended the war as a lieutenant, having served as the ship's communications officer and a deck officer.

On his return to Kansas, Sheridan resumed his education by enrolling for an M. …

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