Laura J. Mitchell

Picture of Laura J. Mitchell
Associate Professor, History
School of Humanities
Ph.D., UCLA, 2001, African History
M.S., Georgetown University, 1993, Foreign Service
M.A., Georgetown University, 1993, European History
B.A., University of California, Berkeley, 1986, History & French
Phone: History Department: (949) 824-6521
Fax: (949) 824-2865
University of California, Irvine
234 Krieger Hall
Mail Code: 3275
Irvine, CA 92697
Research Interests
Sub-Saharan Africa; South Africa; Dutch East India Company; colonialism; environment; labor & slavery; family & household formation
Academic Distinctions
Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, visiting Maitre de Conference, 2008
American Historical Association Gutenberg-e Prize, 2004
NEH Summer Institute: Indian Ocean, Cradle of Globalization, 2002
UCLA Chancellor's Fellowship, 1999-2000
Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad, 1997-98
UCLA Department of History Fellowship, 1993-1997
Title VI, Foreign Language Area Studies Fellowship for Zulu, 1995-97
Research Abstract
Tensions inherent in all social interactions are particularly acute in colonial contexts. Struggles over access to land and resources, definitions of race, and the basis of social, economic and political order have permeated South African society throughout the more than 400 years for which there is documentation of multi-cultural exchanges. My research examines colonial interactions in South Africa during the long eighteenth century. I am a social historian who takes a broad approach to historical inquiry; my work explores questions of land tenure and resource allocation, slavery and other bonded labor, environmental issues, gender, sexuality, household formation, material culture, and trans-regional networks of exchange.

I am particularly concerned with situating the development of colonial society at the Cape of Good Hope within the broader context of Dutch East India Company (VOC) exchange networks. Lying at the confluence of two oceans, the Cape was a bridging point between Europe and Asia. Inland, indigenous hunters and herders engaged in both local and long-distance social and economic exchanges across Southern Africa. Thus colonial life emerged from the competing influences of three continents, juxtaposing multiple legal, religious, economic, social, and administrative traditions. These tumultuous circumstances provide fertile terrain for historical inquiry.

My first book is a local history of the Cedarberg, a region of contested colonial settlement, fluid identities, but stable settler land tenure. Belongings shows that setter family relationships were crucial to the eventual success of colonial land claims in the face of violent resistance from displaced Khoisan and subordinated slaves. I reconstructed a story of communities situated in specific landscapes from disparate pieces of evidence, much of it fragmentary. I used a wide range of archival sources preserved in the papers of the VOC in the Netherlands and South Africa(land rent ledgers, property deeds, census records, wills, estate inventories, auction rolls, criminal court cases, military reports) and the Dutch Reformed Church (birth, death, and marriage registers), along with published travel narratives, genealogies, and unpublished archaeological site reports from the ongoing survey projects at the University of Cape Town.

Read the full-text of Belongings on-line

As I explored the tangible material components that partly comprised colonial households—things like land, water, game, livestock, ploughs, cooking pots, beds, and candlesticks—I continually confronted the stark violence that pervades the accumulated evidence of the eighteenth century. I began to ask more questions about the ideological, spiritual, or cosmological frameworks through which communities made sense of their worlds, their lived experiences.

My current research focuses on art as a medium for investigating the meanings ascribed to the natural world by various communities. Examining a range of objects produced by Africans, settlers, and visitors to southern Africa in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, I aim, quite literally, to illustrate the differences in the ways African and European societies understood man’s relationship to nature. Through this exploration of difference I hope to shed light on the intractability of colonial conflicts over land and its social meanings. As a teacher, I encourage students to confront historical stereotypes and to engage with a variety of representations of the African past.

Other links:

CHSSPMaterials: World History Institute

African History Content for 7th Grade
“From Mermaids to Menocchio: Truths and Divergence in Politically Tempestuous Times,” Fiftieth Anniversary Issue: Taking the Temperature of Early Modern Studies in The Sixteenth Century Journal 50:1 (2019), 231-237.
“The Natural World,” in A Cultural History of Western Empires, Volume 4 The Age of Enlightenment (1650–1800), edited by Ian Coller. Bloomsbury Press. 2018.
“Introduction: Writing World Histories for Our Times,” with Alan Karras, in Encounters Old and New in World History, edited by Alan Karras and Laura J. Mitchell. University of Hawaii Press, 2017, 1–14.
“Close Encounters of the Methodological Kind: Contending with Enlightenment Legacies in World History,” in Encounters Old and New in World History, edited by Alan Karras and Laura J. Mitchell. University of Hawaii Press, 2017, 165–180
“Illustrating Empire: A Soldier’s Life and Trans-imperial Encounters in the Eighteenth Century,” World History Connected 14:1 (February 2017)
The New World History: A Field Guide for Teachers and Researchers. Co-edited with Ross Dunn and Kerry Ward. University of California Press, 2016
“Close Encounters of the Methodological Kind: Contending with Enlightenment Legacies in World History,” in Encounters Old and New in World History, edited by Alan Karras and Laura J. Mitchell. University of Hawaii Press, 2017: 165-180
Encounters Old and New in World History: Essays Inspired by Jerry Bentley. Co-edited with Alan Karras. University of Hawaii Press, 2017
“Teach in the Time of Corona(virus).” World History Bulletin 36:1 (Spring/Summer 2020): 5-8.
Panorama: A World History. With Ross Dunn. (McGraw-Hill, 2015)
“Global Context, Local Objects, and Cultural Frontiers: Unsettling South Africa’s National History in Four Moves,” Settler Colonial Studies, March 2014
Worlds Together, Worlds Apart: A Companion Reader, with Kenneth L. Pomeranz and James B. Given. W.W. Norton, 2011
The Pre-Industrial Cape in the Twenty-First Century, special issue of the South African Historical Journal 62:3 (2010), co-edited with Gerald Groenewald
Belongings: Property, Family and Identity in Colonial South Africa, An Exploration of Frontiers 1725 - c. 1830 (Columbia University Press, 2009)
read the book on-line:
“Belonging: Family Formation and Settler Identity in the VOC Cape,” South African Historical Journal 59 (Dec. 2007): 103-125.
“Belonging: Kinship and Identity at the Cape of Good Hope, 1652-1795,” in Contingent Lives: Social Identity and Material Culture in the VOC World, edited by Nigel Worden, 247-265. University of Cape Town Press, 2007.
“‘This is the Mark of the Widow’: Domesticity, and Frontier Conquest in Colonial South Africa,” Frontiers: A Journal of Women’s Studies, 28: 1 & 2 (Spring 2007): 47-76.
A) The Kloof to Overberg B) Panorama of Hottentots Holland C) The Plaats Vergenoegd (Historical commentary on eighteenth-century drawings of the Western Cape, South Africa). In The World of Jan Brandes, 1742-180: Drawings of a Dutch Traveller in Batavia, Ceylon and Southern Africa. Edited by Remco Raben and Max de Bruijn, 366-367 & 373-380. Amsterdam: Rijskmuseum, 2004.
"Material Culture and Cadastral Data: Documenting the Cedarberg Frontier, South Africa, 1725-1740," in Sources and Methods in African History, ed. Toyin Falola and Christian Jennings, 16-32 (Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2003, paperback 2004).
"Traces in the Landscape: Hunters, Herder and Farmers on the Cedarberg Frontier, South Africa,1725-95" Journal of African HIstory 43 (2002), 431-450.
ACLS/NEH/SSCR International Area Studies Fellowship, 2005-06
UC President's Research Fellowship in Humanities, 2005-06
Andrew W. Mellon Foundation New Directions Fellowship, 2008-11
UCI Seed Funding Program, Track 1. 2016 | Support for “Networks and Data: Using Present-day Knowledge Networks to Investigate Historical Social Networks.” Co-PI, Johan Fourie, Stellenbosch University
Professional Societies
American Historical Association
African Studies Association
World History Association
Forum on European Expansion and Global Interaction
Other Experience
Assistant Professor
University of Texas, San Antoino 2000—2002
Last updated