Did you hear? Lecture explores the historical power of rumors

Professor Willem Klooster

Rumors that they had been emancipated fueled many slave uprisings in Europe’s Atlantic colonies during the early modern era, according to Clark University historian Willem Klooster. In his Sept. 20 lecture “Improvised News: Rumors in the Age before Mass Media,” held in the Higgins Lounge at Dana Commons, Klooster described the power of rumor in western slave populations in the 17th-19th centuries, when mass communication was erratic and undependable, and illiteracy widespread.

Following the lecture, Clark Sociology Professor Debra Osnowitz discussed how unfounded rumors have not lost their power to galvanize people into action, even in today’s information age when trustworthy sources of information are available through a wide range of media outlets.

Professor Debra Osnowitz

Professor Debra Osnowitz

Klooster, using sources ranging from royal proclamations to interrogations of slaves arrested for insurrection, cited evidence that slaves in the years 1669-1848 came to believe rumors that they were being freed. Coupled with these rumors was a belief that local authorities deliberately tried to keep knowledge of such decrees from slave populations. Enslaved people used these rumors to mobilize opposition and to legitimize insurrection (their owners understood and feared the power of emancipation rumors, and even tried to keep word of the French Revolution from reaching slave communities). The ubiquity of emancipation rumors, and their persistence over centuries, revealed the ongoing and widespread friction between those implementing authority and those subject to it.

According to Klooster, stories of mythical or long-dead rulers returning to life to free their people from oppression (like Britain’s King Arthur) were not uncommon in European peasant communities. Among black slaves, rumors circulated of kings or queens coming from Africa to liberate their people. Black communities often appointed one of their own members to serve as king or queen, and in return for tribute, the “ruler” would carry out certain responsibilities on behalf of his or her “subjects,” including on occasion providing leadership in time of rebellion.

Klooster pointed out that during an age when information was spread most frequently by word of mouth, it was difficult to distinguish truth from fiction. But rumor was more than a means for disseminating news: it also satisfied an innate human need to make sense of the world and cope with uncertainty.

Klooster derived part of his lecture’s title from a 1966 book by sociologist Tamotsu Shibutani called “Improvised News: A Sociological Study of Rumor.” According to Osnowitz, Shibutani “analyzes rumor as a process through which people make sense of situations, especially crises, when channels of information fail.” Rumor serves to bind people of like mind and situation together, and to justify collective behavior and belief structures. For that reason rumor persists in contemporary society. Osnowitz cited the example of “birthers” — those who question President Barack Obama’s American citizenship. Their skepticism in the face of evidence to the contrary reflects a perception of Obama as an “other,” and provides justification for questioning his political legitimacy.

“Improvised News” kicked off the lecture series “The Roots of Everything,” sponsored by Clark’s Early Modernists Unite. Formed in the spring of 2010, EMU draws together faculty from across the humanities who study 16th-18th century Europe and America. The group aims to show students how familiarity with the concerns and problems of early modern societies can enhance our understanding of today’s world.