History professor earns Best Book Award

Sherry Johnson, associate professor in the Department of History, has been awarded the prestigious Gordon K. and Sybil Lewis Prize by the Caribbean Studies Association (CSA) for her latest work, Climate and Catastrophe in Cuba and the Atlantic World in the Age of Revolution.

The Best Book Award was presented at the CSA’s 37th Annual Meeting, hosted May 28 to June 1 in Le Gosier, Guadeloupe, a French island in the Lesser Antilles.

“It’s incredible and a total surprise to have been given this award,” Johnson said. “This book has been a long-time-coming. I began working on it as early as 1985 and it was published in 2011. To have my work validated and appreciated by the association is an honor.”

By integrating the history of national disasters with the sociopolitical and economic events in this region, Johnson implies the outcomes of the Seven Years’ War, American and Haitian revolutions were consequences of ecological crisis.

“The later half of the 18th century saw a period of warmer temperatures in the Caribbean, about 2 degrees Celsius that were enough to cause an imperceptible warming world-wide,” Johnson said. “This climate change caused an increase in the number of hurricanes and drought in the region. Combine these natural disasters with what was happening politically and economically with the imperial powers, and all of these factors worked together to lead to colonial conflict.”

Johnson explains that, as the monarchies sent more military personnel to the Western Hemisphere to strike down on revolts, the imperial servicemen found themselves without food due to the drought and over-population.

“The ‘Siege and Fall of Havana’ in 1762 is directly attributable to the lack of food for their military in the island,” Johnson said. “Provisions were supposed to come in from Mexico, but there just wasn’t enough. This is where political science and economics come in. The Spanish bought provisions from the British colonies in North America. When the colonists saw they had a market in Cuba and the Caribbean, they realized they could gamble on attaining independence from the British monarchy.”

Born in New Jersey, Johnson lived throughout the east coast during her childhood, including Florida, Pennsylvania and Maryland. The daughter of a deep sea diver and a homemaker, Johnson lived in Miami until age five and returned to the state at age 20 to attend the University of Florida.

“My orientation to the Caribbean has been a lifetime thing, it’s always been there,” Johnson said. “My parents would travel to Havana when I was little, but they never took me with them despite my pleas. Cuba is mysterious. There’s a mystique about it that just fascinates me. But it’s also a very typical Caribbean country, which I love.”

Johnson, who joined the faculty at FIU in 1995,  is currently the director of Academic Programs for the FIU Latin American and Caribbean Center. She also teaches courses on Caribbean and Florida history, Cuban history, Latin American women’s history, and Latin American environment history.

The CSA is a non-profit, independent professional organization devoted to the promotion of Caribbean studies from a multidisciplinary and multicultural point of view. The Gordon K. and Sybil Lewis Prize is a yearly award given for the best book published over the previous three years in Spanish, English, French or Dutch.