The Zamani Reader (TZR)

A History Blog from a History Student

Book Review Published in the Florida Historical Quarterly

Dear readers, last fall I had the privilege to publish my first book review in the Florida Historical Quarterly. The review is on Indian River Lagoon: An Environmental History. This is a recent monograph by a South Florida historian and primary/secondary school teacher named Nathaniel Osborn. Osborn received his master’s degree in History from Florida Atlantic University in 2012 and Indian River Lagoon is his first book. In the work, Osborn offers a longue durée natural and human history of what he defines as “the most biologically diverse estuarine ecosystem in the United States.” In doing so, he plots out a nuanced story that defies our stereotypical ideas of “natural environment” and “artificial degradation.” Overall, I was very impressed with the work, and I recommend all of those who are interested in either Florida history or American environmental history to read it. I have copied a PDF version of my review below for you to read at your pleasure. My thanks go out to the editorial staff at the Florida Historical Quarterly. I am particularly grateful to Assistant Editor Daniel S. Murphree, who commissioned this review. Enjoy!

Book Review of Nathaniel Osborn’s Indian River Lagoon in FHQ (2016)


Announcement for the Second Annual UC Davis Graduate History Conference on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, May 19-21

Dear readers, it is that time again! The second annual UC Davis Graduate History Conference is only eleven days away. I have attached a flier for the event to this post. The flier was created by the two principal organizers for the conference, Lawrence Abrams and Kaleb Knoblauch. These two outstanding graduate students have worked incredibly hard, and at their own expense, to follow up on their success from planning and hosting last year’s inaugural graduate student conference. The History Department at UC Davis is one of the leading institutions for the study of History in the United States, a fact which has been re-affirmed this year through a number of departmental successes, including the awarding of a Bancroft Prize to one of our professors, Andrés Reséndez, for his work on a book called The Other Slavery. The UC Davis History Department deserves to be the home of a graduate conference that will do justice to its place in academia, and we thank Abrams and Knoblauch for their work in making this ambition a reality.

In being consistent with the theme of last year’s event, this year’s conference is also called “Historians Without Borders, History Without Limits.” It is a three day event that will include eight student panels, a keynote lecture by professor Ian Campbell–called “Stories in Surprising Places: Finding and Reading Culture in Non-Literary Documents”–and a special plenary discussion about interdisciplinarity and pedagogy by the Writing Across the Curriculum program. Lunch will be provided on Friday, May 19, and both breakfast and lunch will be provided on Saturday and Sunday, May 20-21.

There is a new feature to the conference this year. The entire first day of the conference will be devoted to the work of undergraduate students from the History Department. Six students will present their research in two panels. The panels will be commented upon by the conference’s organizers. So, although the conference is nominally described as a “Graduate” History Conference, the undergraduate presenters, the special guests, and the participating professors will make it a truly department-wide affair.

As the flier states, the three-day conference will include panels on “Labour, Resources, Representation, Memory and Cognition, Modernity, Language, Music, Humour, Fashion, War, and More…” I will be presenting my HIS 203 project in a panel entitled “Say, Think, Do: Discourse and Cognition in History.” My paper is entitled “‘With How Little Regard to Truth:’ Edward Long and the Politics of “African Ethnicity” in a Slave Society, 1760-1774.” It explores the political dimensions of an often-cited discussion about African ethnicity by the eighteenth century Jamaican planter and historian, Edward Long.

If you happen to be in the area of the California Central Valley on the weekend of May 19-21, I hope that you will come out and join us for this highly anticipated event and hear about some of the great work currently being done by both students at this premier research institution, as well as by their esteemed guests from academic institutions across the country and the world. Thanks, and I hope to see you there!

Poster for the UC Davis Second Annual History Conference

All Creole Cultures: Identity, Community, and the Limits of Talking About African “Ethnicities” in the Early Americas

In taking their cues from the extant primary-source materials, scholars have written about African “ethnic” communities in the colonial Americas since almost the moment that they began writing about the transatlantic slave trade and its origins. Researchers today are occasionally surprised to discover that even scholars of the Jim Crow-era, such as Ulrich B. Phillips, wrote about these various “ethnic” groups in the Americas. As early as 1918, Phillips gestured to a theory of ethnogenesis—the idea that distinct African identities underwent a collective transformation on American plantations. “Ceasing to be Foulah, Coromantee, Ebo or Angola, ” Phillips wrote, African people in the diaspora became “instead the American negro.” This statement was one of the earliest expressions of what the historian Michael Gomez has more-recently called the “process whereby Africans [in the Americas] moved along a continuum from ethnicity to race.”[1]

The discussion around African “ethnicities” has a long history in the literature of American slavery. Nonetheless, as a scholarly conversation, it has received an unprecedented amount of attention over just the past quarter century. Case studies by authors like David Littlefield and David Wheat (Rice and Slaves, Atlantic Africa and the Spanish Caribbean), surveys by authors like Michael Gomez and Gwendolyn Midlo Hall (Exchanging Our Country Marks, Slavery and African Ethnicities in the Americas), and compilations by editors like Paul Lovejoy and David Trotman (Trans-Atlantic Dimension of Ethnicity in the African Diaspora) have all contributed to a renewed interest in studying African diasporic identities through the framework of “ethnicity.” For many of these historians, “ethnicity” serves the simple function of moving our dialogue beyond homogenous portrayals of African peoples in the diaspora. “Ethnicity” helps scholars avoid speaking in the analytically flat categories of “African,” “Black,” or “Negro.” In this sense, the conversation is both well-intentioned and necessary. However, in another sense, the language of “ethnicity” brings with it a series of assumptions that threaten to limit our ability to understand African identities. I address a couple of those limitations in this essay. In doing so, I argue that that framework of “ethnicity” is useful, provided scholars localize their studies, interrogate their sources, and emphasize the inherently creole, dynamic, fluid nature of all diasporic groups.[2] Continue reading “All Creole Cultures: Identity, Community, and the Limits of Talking About African “Ethnicities” in the Early Americas”

To Hold Both Sides Together: Miami Historiography and the Question of the ‘New Immigrant City’

“Mid-flight between Miami and Havana, in either direction, I believe I can hold both sides together. Increasingly, there is the possibility for a coherent perspective, for an imagined future that transcends the rupture without denying the pain, without compromising the ethics and principles that in the long run make a difference in history.”

– María de Los Angeles Torres, In the Land of Mirrors (200)

In the summer of 2005, the historian and scholar of human migration, Melanie Shell-Weiss, published an essay in a special, transnational issue of the regional journal Florida Historical Quarterly. The article was called “Coming North to the South: Migration, Labor and City-Building in Twentieth-Century Miami,” and it described the experiences of early-twentieth-century Bahamian migrants to South Florida in order to argue that “Miami has always been a transnational city, even if it only recently has become a global city.” In the commentaries section of this same issue, Alex Lichtenstein, an historian of race and labor in the American South, set out to respond to Shell-Weiss’ thesis that Miami was “not a new immigrant city.” He cited sociological distinctions between “internal” and “foreign-born” migrants, and he questioned the historical impact of the latter group in “the first half of the twentieth century” when compared with the second half. He dug into the city’s census records, listing out percentages of foreign and native-born migrants for each decade of Miami’s history. He then weighed the early statistics for human migration against other urban areas with substantial portions of foreign-born migrants. Afterward, he concluded that “by no stretch of the imagination could Miami be described as a city significantly shaped by foreign immigration prior to 1960.” Later, he stated bluntly that “the visible imprint of the Bahamian contribution was limited,” leaving only a “faint” impression on the urban landscape. This impression was minimal when compared to that of the Latin American and Caribbean migrants who completely “remade the face of the city” in the decades following the Cuban Revolution of 1959.[1]

These FHQ exchanges between Shell-Weiss and Lichtenstein epitomized the character of Miami historiography in the early-twenty-first century. Everything from a mutual desire to “distinguish sharply between the pre- and post-1960s eras,” an interrogation of a “foreign” Bahamian influence in reference to that of later “foreign” migrants from the Spanish and French-speaking countries of the Caribbean and Latin America, and what some have called an often-excessive “quibble over numbers” was characteristic of where the urban history of Miami stood in the early 2000s, as well as where it had come from. All things considered, the debate over whether Miami was or was not a “new immigrant city” was essentially a trial about the city’s past. Indeed, if Miami was a “new immigrant city,” as Lichtenstein argued, then where did its pre-1960 history belong? On the contrary, if Miami had “always been” a transnational city as Shell-Weiss claimed, then how should the unique effects of its post-1960 transformation be fully appreciated?[2]

The following essay will provide background to this special historiographical moment. It will offer a cursory overview of Miami historiography from about the founding of the city in 1896 up to these 2005 exchanges. The defining factor of the essay is that its analysis is confined entirely to the provincial, urban historiography of one single city. In other words, this paper does not draw upon theoretical models applied in different urban environments, American or otherwise; it is not comparative in scope; and it does not cite broader historical contexts. Of course, there are moments when Miami’s historiographical turns are probably more indicative of larger trends—like the rise of cliometrics, new social sciences, or postcolonial narratives—than they are of any self-contained idea about the city or a single generation of writers. Nonetheless, the present author hopes only that this historiography of Miami, however insulated and self-serving in its content, will provide a detailed case study for those authors who are bold enough to make larger connections. Continue reading “To Hold Both Sides Together: Miami Historiography and the Question of the ‘New Immigrant City’”

Review of Gwendolyn Midlo Hall’s Slavery and African Ethnicities in the Americas: Restoring the Links

Gwendolyn Midlo Hall. Slavery and African Ethnicities in the Americas: Restoring the Links.  Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2005. xxii + 248 pp. $27.50. Illustrations, maps, figures, tables, appendices, notes, bibliography, and index.

Gwendolyn Midlo Hall’s Slavery and African Ethnicities in the Americas is a short, passionate, yet far-reaching book which seeks to “challenge the still widely held belief among scholars as well as the general public that Africans were so fragmented when they arrived in the Western Hemisphere that specific African regions and ethnicities had little influence on particular regions in the Americas.” Generally, Hall is an expert on cultures in the African diaspora to the Americas. She is well-known for her case study—Africans in Colonial Louisiana: The Development of Afro-Creole Culture in the Eighteenth Century (1992)—and her tendency to conduct research in Spanish, French, English, and now Portuguese. In this book, she offers a solid if heavy handed introduction to the transfer of African ethnicities and regional cultures to the Americas over the entire early-modern period. She argues the French and Spanish were better at recording “ethnic designations” for slaves than other Europeans (viz. English and Americans); that most of what was recorded reflects self-identification by enslaved people rather than impositions by others; and that, by historicizing such records across time and place, historians can recover many different processes of creolization, especially the ways in which “specific African regions and ethnicities” gave “major contributions” to “the formation of the new cultures developing throughout the Americas.”[1]

Hall begins with a righteous preface (titled “Truth and Reconciliation”) that sets high stakes for her defense of Africans, who “have received very little recognition for their contributions and sacrifices and very few of the benefits.” Her first chapter is an historical and historiographic outline of the slave trade, reiterating her moral imperatives and critiquing various historians for “excusing and rationalizing” slavery. The next two chapters are methodological pieces that address problems related to studying ethnicities in the diaspora while arguing for their “clustering” through homogenous “cargoes” and successive “waves.” The next four chapters are case studies about broad areas of the African coast—north to south—out of which slaves were shipped. Each outlines the region’s trade and focuses on the impact one or two migrant groups had in the Americas. Respectively, they cover 1) the Bamana of “Greater Senegambia/Upper Guinea;” 2) the Mina of “Lower Guinea: Ivory Coast, Gold Coast, Slave Coast/Bight of Benin,” 3) the Igbo of “Lower Guinea: The Bight of Biafra,” and 4) the Kongo or Angolans of “Bantulands: West Central Africa and Mozambique.” Finally, Hall’s concludes with a short recapitulation of her study’s implications.[2]

What about Hall’s sources? One of her goals is to prove “the value of combining the study of [quantitative] data from transatlantic slave trade voyages with [qualitative] descriptions of African ethnicities in documents from various times and places in the America.” For this, she relies on three categories. The first is her own Louisiana Slave Database, 1791-1820 (2000), which has information for 104,000 Africans in colonial Louisiana. 8,842 are listed with ethnic designations, taken from baptismal records, bills of sale, plantation inventories, runaway ads, interrogation transcripts, court testimonies, and more. The second is David Eltis’ Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database (1999), which has information on over 35,000 slave trading expeditions, including their initial points of “embarkation” and “disembarkation,” between 1527 and 1866. The final category consists of more-traditional manuscript collections from Louisiana, France, and Spain. In this category we can include an extensive secondary literature on the transshipment or inter-colonial slave trade, as well as regions in both Africa and the Americas that are outside of Hall’s bailiwick.[3]

Hall is an unrestrained arguer. Here, I will focus only on historiography that relates directly to ethnicity. Hall fits with scholars who support the survival of specific yet broad regional cultures through the Middle Passage, and the need to historicize “ethnic designations” in the documentary record of the American colonies as reliable expressions of those individual cultures. This includes Michael Gomez, James Sweet, Paul Lovejoy, Gabriel Debien, David Geggus, David Littlefield, John Thornton, and others. Hall’s emphasis on people uniting based on “mutually intelligible languages” or specialized skills from their home region is especially reminiscent of this work. Interestingly, one of Hall’s main historiographic predecessors is her own. She has argued, for instance, that Africans in Louisiana who identified as “Bambara” were really Bamana from Senegambia and were a dominant and troublesome group to French and Spanish colonists. Broadly, this perspective juxtaposes Hall’s work with historians of the creolization school—such as Richard Price, Sidney Mintz, and Vincent Brown—who emphasize the inherent randomization of the slave trade, the core heterogeneity of all diasporic communities, and the idea that “ethnic designations” represent either imposed “product labels” or sui generis cultures that defy traditional ethnicities.[4]

The problems with studying ethnicities in the diaspora are vast. They involve working with inconsistent, changing, and unclear terminology; nonexistent and understudied records; and persistent doubt about when to interpret designations as signifiers of self-conscious collectives; intentional or accidental misattributions; or markers of fluid communities. Accordingly, while Hall succeeds brilliantly at times—like in her historicization of the designation “Mina” across four hundred years of transatlantic history—her execution is not perfect overall. Her single-minded focus leads her to emphasize homogeneity even if the numbers suggest otherwise and de-emphasize moments when slaves appear to be developing new cultures or working across ethnic lines. Also, while Hall introduces the tools we can use to study ethnicities in the Americas, she does not fulfill her promise to show how they contributed to the formation of individual cultures. Instead, this discussion remains mostly limited to vague ideas about the perceived labor value of certain groups, like Africans from Upper Guinea as better rice cultivators, women from the Bight Biafra as better mothers, and Africans from various regions as better miners. Regardless, Hall claims her book is only “the beginning of the long, complex, challenging, but important task of restoring the severed links between Africa and the Americas.” If we judge Slavery and African Ethnicities as only the beginning of this monumental endeavor, then it is certainly a beginning worth commending.[5]


[1] Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, Slavery and African Ethnicities in the Americas: Restoring the Links (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2005), xv, 38, 49.

[2] Ibid. xvi, 8, 55-56.

[3] Ibid. 168.

[4] Ibid. 9-11, 132.

[5] Ibid. 165.

Review of Rebecca Shumway’s The Fante and the Transatlantic Slave Trade

Rebecca Shumway. The Fante and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Rochester: The University of Rochester Press, 2011. xii + 244 pp. $90.00. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, and index.

In The Rise of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade in Western Africa, 1300-1589, Toby Green wrote, “There was not one Atlantic slave trade, but many trades wreaking many different effects…” Indeed, Shumway’s first book and refurbished dissertation, The Fante and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, is a study of one such trade and the ethnolinguistic culture it allegedly produced. Shumway uses archives from England and Ghana, oral histories from Ghana, and secondary sources to tell the history of the coastal Fante during the long eighteenth century. Today, the Fante people constitute 2 million of Ghana’s population of 21 million, and historiography typically dates their origin to a paper government—the Fante Confederation—established in 1868 to resist British colonization. In this text, however, Shumway argues that the Confederation had a predecessor, a decentralized republic that she calls the “Coastal Coalition.” Her book uncovers the story of this coalition. Her thesis is that both the coalition and modern Fante identity cannot be understood without reference to three contexts that shaped Fanteland during the long eighteenth century: the unique legacy of the international gold trade; the imperial expansion of the Asante Kingdom in the forested interior; and the rise, peak, and fall of the transatlantic slave trade on the coast.[1]

The Fante occupied a region of southern or coastal Ghana from the Pra River to Accra. It is known today as Fanteland but was an 100-mile stretch of the central Gold Coast in the eighteenth century. Before the late-1600s, Fanteland imported slaves and exported gold, first to Western Sudan and then also to European traders. In this period, the region contained small, independent, and feuding kingships, all culturally and linguistically distinct. Then, Fanteland drastically changed its relationship to the Atlantic World by embracing slave exportation. What followed were wars in which one group—the Borbor Fante—conquered Fanteland to forge the coalition. Ostensibly, the coalition served three purposes: to help Fanteland people cope with heightened violence from the slave trade, to protect their privileges as brokers of that same trade, and to defend against conquest by the Asante, who were also their suppliers. The coalition matured by the 1750s and had a “golden age” until 1806/1807, when it was destroyed by an Asante invasion and the abolition of the British transatlantic slave trade. According to Shumway, the coalition was characterized by a lack of centralized political authority, a new warlord elite and priesthood, the dominance of an urban creole merchant class at the African-controlled port of Anomabo, a dissemination of the Fante language, and a transformation of pre-existing “social and cultural institutions,” especially a religious shrine of the Nananom Mpow and the commoner militia units called asafo.[2]

What are Shumway’s main contributions? First, she restores Anomabo in Gold Coast historiography. This port has been overshadowed by Cape Coast and Elmina, which performed much less business. Also, unlike Randy Sparks’ recent book on Anomabo (Where the Negroes Are Masters), Shumway balances internal (read: African) and external (read: European) influences. Meanwhile, she adheres to the thesis of John Thornton (Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World) that Europeans shaped yet had no power to control African commerce. Second, Shumway restores non-imperial peoples as well as non-slavers to the story of the Gold Coast, Africa, and the slave trade. She writes, “the majority of people in West and West Central Africa” resembled Fanteland because they lived in “decentralized or stateless societies” that were neither subjugated nor defined solely by their roles as captors and/or captives. Nonetheless, the literature has privileged empires like Asante. Third, Shumway restores the slave trade and the 1700s to national historiography, which has emphasizes Ghana’s earlier reputation as a gold exporter and later reputation as the birthplace of Pan-Africanism and decolonization. In this sense, Shumway picks up where Ray Kea left off in Settlements, Trade and Polities in the Seventeenth-Century Gold Coast.[3]

How persuasive is Shumway’s argument? While I am convinced that Fanteland was shaped by the three contexts mentioned in the first paragraph of this review, I am less convinced Shumway has accurately described the “Coastal Coalition.” Is it a network “of dependency and mutual obligation” and a “remarkable process of cultural adaptation and community formation,” as she argues, or more of a Fantee empire of territorial expansion to contrast with that of the Asante? Of course, this latter perspective is the traditional one. Understandably, there are problems with both of Shumway’s main categories of evidence. It is hard to know if European records are accurately describing a unified “Fantee nation,” or if they are projecting the idea on a diverse area. Conversely, with the oral histories, it is hard to know whether Shumway is correct to attribute their content to the eighteenth century rather than later periods, as others have done. Regardless, perhaps the book’s biggest weakness (in the opinion of this reviewer) is that Shumway makes a regional claim by giving the most space to one group (the Borbor Fante) and one port (Anomabo). Her brief and final chapter on the broad “social and cultural changes” in the region is certainly the most speculative, but it is also the most innovative and compelling.[4]


[1] Toby Green, The Rise of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade in Western Africa , 1300-1589 (Oxford: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 14; Rebecca Shumway, The Fante and the Transatlantic Slave Trade (Rochester: The University of Rochester Press, 2011), 2, 11-12, 153, 157.

[2] Ibid. 53, 108, 132.

[3] Ibid. 4, 8, 43.

[4] Ibid. 12, 88, 89-90.

A Truly Revolutionary Removal: An Introduction to the “Backlash Thesis” of Politics, Gender, and the American Revolution

Images: The engraving on the left depicts the so-called “petticoat electors,” women permitted to vote in the New Jersey electorate from 1776 to 1807. The painting on the right depicts a Missouri election in the 1850s. As the historian Rosemarie Zagarri writes, the contrast between these images captures a backlash against gender in early America. Although the political process was much more inclusive in the revolutionary era, only white men were empowered by the 1850s.

Introduction: Please excuse me. This historiographical essay begins in an unorthodox way: with a personal story. This past fall, I was serving as a teacher’s assistant for the very first time at UC Davis. I was assigned to Professor John Smolenski’s course, “HIST 17A: History of the United States to 1877.” On Wednesday morning, November 2, Smolenski gave the class a particularly memorable lecture. It was about the age of former president Andrew Jackson, and the theme was “An Age of Removals.” Of course, Smolenski talked about the Trail of Tears, and the removal of the five major Southeast Indian tribes west across the Mississippi River in the 1830s. Then he talked about the ongoing work of the American Colonization Society—their continuing effort to remove free black people from the country in the same era. Last, but not least, he talked about the so-called “petticoat electors.” Now this was a subject that I had come across before, but only in passing, as I skimmed textbooks in preparation for teaching at Solano Community College. Nonetheless, I am ashamed to admit that, as a twenty-eight-year-old PhD student in History, I had never appreciated the subject until Smolenki’s lecture. As most historians of early America know, the “petticoat electors” refers to a group of property-holding women in New Jersey. These women took advantage of a new state constitution from 1776 that did not specifically prohibit women from voting. They voted in local elections from the 1790s to 1807, when new state laws removed them from the electorate.[1]

What is the purpose of discussing the “petticoat electors?” The forced removal of property-holding women from the New Jersey electorate is only one example of what historians often refer to as the “limits” or the “paradox” of the American Revolution and the subsequent establishment of the United States of America as a new nation-state. In the above example of Smolenski’s lecture, the case of these female electors serves to round out a three-dimensional introduction to such limits. The example of the Trail of Tears introduces the limits in relation to Native American peoples; the example of the American Colonization Society introduces them in relation to African-Americans; and, last, the case of the “petticoat electors” introduces them in relation to propertied women. On the one hand, the story of these women has become a standard line in history textbooks, because perhaps no other incident in early American history can so clearly demonstrate the blatant failure of revolutionary ideals—like calls for “liberty” and freedom from British “tyranny, oppression, and slavery”—to translate into increased freedoms for women. On the other hand, the example of the “petticoat electors” is also an introduction to a much larger argument about the history of gender and the founding of the United States. This argument is called the “backlash thesis.”[2]

What is the “backlash thesis?” Well, if you searched the phrase in an online journal database like JSTOR, America: History and Life, or Academic Search Complete, you would probably come away thinking that it was about Southern, white racial conservatism in reaction to the desegregation decision in the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education. Indeed, the phrase “backlash thesis” is most commonly used in academia to refer to the postwar period of the twentieth century, especially to how the modern conservative movement arose as a direct response to gains that were made in areas such as racial equality, women’s reproductive rights, and LGBTQ rights. Much of this work derives from a foundational article by the Civil Rights and legal historian Michael J. Klarman. However, the phrase “backlash thesis” is also employed in the field of early American history. Here it refers to a national conservatism in reaction to gains in women’s and gender rights that accompanied the American revolution and the founding of the country. Perhaps its most vocal advocate—its Michael J. Klarman—is the historian Rosemarie Zagarri, in her 2007 monograph Revolutionary Backlash: Women and Politics in the Early American Republic.[3] Continue reading “A Truly Revolutionary Removal: An Introduction to the “Backlash Thesis” of Politics, Gender, and the American Revolution”

“A Presumptive Evidence?” An Introduction to the Historiography of African Provenance Labels in the Early Modern Era

Images: The engraving on the left supposedly depicts a “Coromantyn” person living in the Dutch colony of Suriname in the late-eighteenth century. The picture on the right supposedly depicts a “Congo” person living in South Carolina in the mid-nineteenth century. Both images show an interest in labeling African provenance in the early-modern era.

Epigraphs: “There is a vast difference in the…dispositions of the Negroes, according to the coasts they come from.” – B. Moreton, West India Customs and Manners, 1793[1]

“…good subjects are frequently found in cargoes of the worst reputation, and bad ones in those of the best. The country, therefore, forms only a presumptive evidence of quality, which may mislead…”- Anonymous, Practical Rules for the Management and Medical Treatment of Negro Slaves, 1803[2]

Introduction: Mandingo. Jollof. Ballum. Kissy. Temne. Coromantee. Chamba. Asante. Papaw. Nago. Dome. Igbo. Moco. Angola. Mungola. Kongo. For scholars who work on both slavery in the Americas and the Black Diaspora in what historians often define as the early-modern era (1490s-1830s), at least some of these words will be familiar. They are words that appear to a varying degree in the documentary record of the Atlantic colonies, from English-speaking New York to Dutch-speaking Suriname and Portuguese-speaking Brazil. More precisely, historians call these terms ethnic, national, or provenance labels. They are words that were used by both blacks and whites to differentiate between Africans in the Americas. As contemporary authors indicated, these labels were associated in the minds of early-modern writers with what we generally call ethnicities or nationalities, but what contemporaries more often referred to as “countries,” “nations,” and sometimes even “races.” Even more important, these labels were associated with provenance: areas of the African coast out of which slaves embarked on the Middle Passage. For example, Mandingo was used for people from Senegambia on the Upper Guinea Coast; Ibo for those from the Bight of Biafra on the Lower Guinea Coast; and Congo for those from Congo-Angola in West-Central Africa.[1]

Provenance labels are common in the documentary record of the early-modern period. As the historian Michael Mullin has written, “ordinary people identified Africans as members of particular societies more carefully than scholars have given them credit for doing.” From the engravings that were featured in travel narratives like that of John Gabriel Stedman in 1796, to the black-and-white photographs that were taken by J.T. Zealy in 1850, the evidence demonstrates that many people in the early-modern period had a desire to see beyond monolithic categories like “African,” “black,” or “negro.” Instead, they expressed an interest in representing difference among Africans in both visual and literary forms. However, as the two epigraphs featured above show, these same contemporaries often disagreed about how reliable provenance labels really were for determining the origin, culture, or behavior of an African person who was brought into American slavery.[2] Continue reading ““A Presumptive Evidence?” An Introduction to the Historiography of African Provenance Labels in the Early Modern Era”

Review of Kariann Akemi Yokota’s Unbecoming British

KARIANN AKEMI YOKOTA. Unbecoming British: How Revolutionary America Became a Postcolonial Nation. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. Pp. xii, 368. $36.95. Hardcover. ISBN: 0190217871.

In Unbecoming British, historian Kariann Akemi Yokota takes as her subject the historical process of American identity formation across the revolutionary and new national periods, or what she calls “America’s postcolonial period.” Specifically, she traces the process through which English colonists created an “American national character” out of their colonial inheritances. She does this through material, visual, and cultural history rather than political history. As Yokota observes, the transition of English subjects to American citizens was rife with “tensions and contradictions” that historians can study through both “lives of people engaged in missionary, scientific, and commercial pursuits” and “objects as varied as maps, imported and domestic artworks, and botanical prints.” Foremost among these tensions is the idea that, while elite American nationalists embraced aspects of their new identity such as their country’s raw materials, the superiority of whiteness, an increasingly democratic political structure, and a reflex for self-defensive intellectual arguments, “they could not relinquish their cultural attachments to the refined objects and courtly trappings of the British monarchy.” In short, while the political process of “unbecoming British” might have culminated with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, the cultural process was just beginning.[1] Continue reading “Review of Kariann Akemi Yokota’s Unbecoming British”

Historical Fictions: Readings on the Origins and Relevance of the First Great Awakening

SUSAN JUSTER. Disorderly Women: Sexual Politics and Evangelicalism in Revolutionary New England. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996. Pp. xi, 224. $24.95. Paperback. ISBN: 0801483883.

FRANK LAMBERT. “The First Great Awakening: Whose Interpretive Fiction?” The New England Quarterly 68 (1995): 650-659.

JON BUTLER. “Enthusiasm Described and Decried: The Great Awakening as Interpretive Fiction.” The Journal of American History 69 (1982): 305-325.

The readings for this week discuss the origins and relevance of the “First Great Awakening.” This is a term used to describe a series of religious revivals that occurred to a varying degree across the British colonies of mainland North America in the mid-eighteenth century, mostly between the 1730s and 1750s. In “Enthusiasm Described and Decried,” Jon Butler argues scholars should “abandon the term” because it is both an “interpretative fiction” and anachronism that “distorts the character of eighteenth-century American religious life and misinterprets its relationship to prerevolutionary American society and politics.” Contemporaries, as he states, were not the ones who used this label. Rather, the now-popular term of “Great Awakening” was invented by a nineteenth-century historian named Joseph Tracy. He projected the religious context of his own age—what is now referred to as the “Second Great Awakening” of the early national period—back onto the colonial era. In doing so, he “homogenized” a series of local, scattered, erratic, heterogenous, “politically benign,” and largely unrelated revivals; he re-cast them as a great, general, and uniform phenomenon. As Butler laments, a diverse lineage of scholars has followed Tracy’s lead since “the last half of the nineteenth century,” thereby furthering all sorts of gross mischaracterizations. Foremost among the distortions is a “fiction” that “the Great Awakening” undermined traditional structures of authority and paved the way for the democratic ideals of the American Revolution. [1] Continue reading “Historical Fictions: Readings on the Origins and Relevance of the First Great Awakening”

Call for Papers, Second Annual UC Davis Graduate History Conference

Dear readers, exciting news! The organizers for the Annual UC Davis Graduate History Conference have released this year’s call for papers (or CFP). I have attached that CFP to this post for your perusal. Last year, under the direction of the program’s two tireless organizers, Lawrence Abrams and Kaleb Knoblauch, the UC Davis History Department was able to host their inaugural graduate student conference, called “Historians Without Borders, History Without Limits.” The conference featured participants from across the greater California area, as well as a few people who came from places that were much more distant, like Rutgers, in New Jersey, and Wayne State, in Michigan. This year, the History Department hopes to improve upon last year’s success. This second installment of the graduate conference will keep the same broad and inclusive theme as the first, with its emphasis on interdisciplinary and trans-disciplinary work, while adding a “special focus on the integration of digital humanities.” Also, this year’s conference will include a specific day for the presentation of work by undergraduates. That being said, please help us disseminate this CFP to any and all interested scholars. As the document states, the deadline for submissions is Friday, December 30, and the conference will take place over the weekend of May 19-21, 2017. If you are a graduate history student, I hope that you will consider submitting your research, whether it is a polished piece or a work in progress.

Second UCD History Grade Conference — Call for Papers

Sources of Power: Reflections from Readings on Race, Sex, and Power in Early America

CLARE A. LYONS. Sex Among the Rabble: An Intimate History of Gender and Power in the Age of Revolution, Philadelphia, 1730-1830. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006. Pp. x, 432. $32.50. Paperback. ISBN: 978-0-8078-5675-8.

How does the historian of early America study something that was rarely meant to be recorded? The readings for this week address that question in the context of the entangled relationship between social power and sexual practice. Put another way, this week’s scholars have either taken specific early American societies—like Massachusetts, Philadelphia, North Carolina, or New Orleans—as their case studies, or they have surveyed sexual coercion across all the original thirteen colonies. Regardless, each of them have looked at the intersection of sex and power. Yet, as Jennifer M. Spear acknowledges in her contribution Race, Sex, and Social Order in Early New Orleans, that task has not been easy one. Indeed, Spear seems to speak for each of this week’s authors when she laments, “Writing about sex in early America is difficult.” Historians of sexuality have, to phrase it mildly, needed to get creative with their sources and methods. Notwithstanding these difficulties, studying sexuality has been a fruitful endeavor. Since, as Sharon Block writes, “sexual power was inextricable from social power,” studies of sexuality have revealed the extent to which unequal power dynamics are coded by practices characterized as either deviant or normative.[1] Continue reading “Sources of Power: Reflections from Readings on Race, Sex, and Power in Early America”

Review of James Sweet’s Domingos Alvares

JAMES H. SWEET. Domingos Álvares, African Healing, and the Intellectual History of the Atlantic World. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2011. Pp. xvii, 320. $30.00. Paperback. ISBN: 978-1-4696-0975-1.

The subject of James Sweet’s biography and self-described intellectual and “Black Atlantic” history, Domingos Álvares, was an African healer and diviner. He came from Naogon, a village of the Mahi confederacy in the West African region of Agonli Cové. This Gbe-speaking area was on the interior of the so-called “Slave Coast” in the early-eighteenth century and it is now part of central Benin. Álvares was probably born around 1710 to parents who were priests—or vodunon—of the Sakpata, a group of deities mainly associated with smallpox. When the expanding kingdom of Dahomey conquered Agonli Cové, its ruler, Agaja, sold these priests into the Middle Passage out of a fear for their ritual abilities. Such was the inciting incident in an Atlantic odyssey that took Álvares to two additional continents over the course of two decades.[1]

Álvares was an Atlantic globetrotter. Around 1730, he was shipped from the port of Jakin to Goiana in Pernambuco, northeastern Brazil, where he became a slave on a sugar plantation. Afterward, he was taken south, first to Recife and then to the streets of Rio de Janeiro, where he purchased his freedom and became a renowned healer with a congregation and disciples. Nonetheless, in 1742, he was accused of being a fetisher and sent to Lisbon, Portugal, to stand trial before the Inquisition Court. After imprisonment, torture, interrogation, and banishment in Castro Marim, a hamlet in the Algarve of southern Portugal, Álvares appeared before the court once again in 1747. Finally, he disappeared from the historical record sometime around 1749 after being ordered to Bragança in northern Portugal, the location of his second exile.[2]

In Domingos Álvares, Sweet has reconstructed this biography from many primary sources. He used oral traditions, censuses, slave trade database statistics, ethnographies, newspapers, maps, genealogies, colonial legal documents, parish records, and travel accounts. When these materials were rare, he extrapolated from secondary literature on pre-colonial Africa, the slave trade, anthropology, historical linguistics, and more. Regardless, his story would not have been possible without Inquisition transcripts. Foremost among these was a more than 600-page dossier in the Portuguese national archives, originally produced by the Holy Office during Álvares’ trials. This case file contains copies of Álvares’ confessions, some Fon-Gbe terms that suggest his African origins, and depositions from nearly four-dozen eyewitnesses.[3]

For Sweet, his Domingos Álvares is a model for overcoming one of Atlantic histories shortcomings—its inability to “accommodate African historical perspectives” on their own terms. Here he takes aim at the work of scholars like Ira Berlin, Linda Heywood, and John Thornton, who have defined Africans in the Atlantic World by the degree to which they were in dialogue with “European ideas and institutions.” These scholars are often uninterested in challenging “the boundaries of European empire and colonialism.” Instead, they seek to trace the Americanization of Africans, and so they emphasize when Africans speak European languages, read Enlightenment texts, dress in European clothes, or appeal to European institutions like the Catholic church or imperial Crown. In theory, Sweet embraces the premise of the “Atlantic creole,” to borrow the phrase of Berlin, as an individual whose power derives from their ability to adapt and cross cultural boundaries. However, Sweet demands that Africa be a more central component of this creolized identity.[4]

While Sweet sees Domingos Álvares as a model for critiquing a Eurocentric approach to Atlantic history, he also sees Álvares’ life as an embodied critique of European colonial ideologies in his own time. “Wherever he traveled,” writes Sweet, “Domingos offered this political discourse of health and healing as an alternative to imperial discourses.” Instead of his African culture being stripped by the social alienation of war and enslavement—as many scholars have argued—Álvares retained and used his native culture throughout his journey. Both his freedom and healing “shifted over time,” defying imperial categories in the process. For example, his healing crossed boundaries by appealing to slaves and freed people, reinforced and threatened colonial legitimacies, and wavered between the criminal and the blessed. Ultimately, the story climaxes in a confrontation between Álvares and his inquisitor in which Álvares is punished for daring to put “African divination and spirit possession on the same therapeutic plane as the rituals of the Catholic church.[5]

In sum, Domingos Álvares is the biography of an African intellectual who challenged European epistemologies, written by an historian who wants to challenge those epistemologies in the scholarship today. As such, Sweet is likely to be critiqued by empiricists for bending his evidence toward his interpretation, especially in moments where he reads Álvares’ intentions into the omissions of the Inquisition records, or when he takes what might be coerced testimony as honest recollection. Others will be uncomfortable when Sweet makes analytical leaps from African oral traditions that are two hundred years removed, or when he reduces Álvares to the level of an ambiguous yet politicized symbol, calling him “an exemplar of modernity but also its fiercest opponent.” But despite these predictable critiques, Sweet has set a bold and remarkable new standard for integrating Africa into the Atlantic. Many will be excited to see how this standard is taken forward, especially in those cases where there is no hefty inquisition file to draw upon.[6]


[1] James H. Sweet, Domingos Álvares, African Healing, and the Intellectual History of the Atlantic World (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2011), 5, 7, 14-15, 20, 24, 26.

[2] Ibid. 26, 129.

[3] Ibid. 2-4, 7.

[4] Ibid. 2, 4-5, 235 n4.

[5] Ibid. 6, 105, 177.

[6] Ibid. 233.

Review of Kristen Block’s Ordinary Lives in the Early Caribbean

KRISTEN BLOCK. Ordinary Lives in the Early Caribbean: Religion, Colonial Competition, and the Politics of Profit. Early American Places. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012. Pp. xiv, 312. $29.95. Paperback. ISBN: 978-0-8203-3868-2.

As Atlantic History has risen to popularity, historians like Lara Putnam and Rebecca Scott have posed a critical question. They have asked whether microhistory can help practitioners overcome some of the field’s most-common limitations, namely its tendency to silence voices of everyday people while emphasizing “Big Picture” changes across enormous geographic scopes. Kristen Block’s latest work, Ordinary Lives in the Early Caribbean, is an attempt to put that question into practice. Described as a “social microhistory,” Ordinary Lives takes as its subject religious change in the Caribbean over the long seventeenth-century. This timing allows Block to study the region as it transitioned from a primarily Catholic, Spanish world into an Anglo, Protestant world following Oliver Cromwell’s so-called Western Design.[1]

One characteristic of Atlantic History is that authors sample a portion of the Atlantic as a case study for the whole. This is true of Ordinary Lives, which takes Cartagena, Jamaica, Hispaniola, and Barbados for its Caribbean. Block divides her study into four parts that examine these locations in chronological order. Each revolves around the biographies of “everyday” people—the “ordinary lives” referenced in the title. These include a runaway slave from Cartagena, Colombia, named Isabel Criolla; a French-Calvinist servant to the Spanish governor of Jamaica named Nicolas Burundel; an English sailor to Hispaniola named Henry Whistler; and two enslaved people on a Quaker plantation in Barbados named Yaft and Nell. Of course, Block features many other figures—including more-standard characters like Sir Francis Drake and Bartolomé de las Casas—but they do not constitute the organizing principle of the text.[2]

Ordinary Lives has two purposes. First, Block wants “to portray with sympathy the stories of groups exploited and silenced by the expansion of early modern Atlantic colonialism and capitalism.” This largely determines the content and narrative of Ordinary Lives, which follows works like Daniel Richter’s Facing East from Indian Country and Natalie Zemon Davis’s The Return of Martin Guerre in utilizing the “the essential craft of the imagination” to re-construct the “hidden transcripts” of silenced actors. Such a thesis leads Block to test the boundaries of the profession to an increasing degree with each part. While Criolla’s struggle against slavery generated ample records in the Inquisition Courts, for instance, almost nothing survives about other people, like Yaft and Nell. In this way, Block uses microhistory to “read against the grain.”[3]

As her second purpose, Block argues that “the Caribbean was a central focus for the early modern shift from religion as a primary basis for political and social identity to that” of what we call race today. This goal determines the arc of Ordinary Lives. In short, as northern European powers achieved dominance, they introduced changes rooted in the Protestant Reformation. These included “toleration for international trade and competitive investment in slave-produced goods,” which ushered the Caribbean on a descent toward irreligion, “cynicism, hostility, and cruelty.” By supplanting Spanish Catholicism, newcomers closed traditional avenues for upward social mobility, hardened race, and created a characteristically brutal West Indian plantation regime. In this sense, Block’s work aligns with that of scholars like Jane Landers and María Elena Díaz, who have argued the Catholic Spanish colonies offered more “pathways to shape social relations” than their Protestant counterparts.[4]

With Ordinary Lives, Block traces the panoramic history of religious change in the Caribbean through intimate microhistories. Many will find this approach admirable; however, tensions between Block’s two purposes often create the impression that the reader has two different books. One rescues the voices of commoners from obscurity—revealing the creative ways they negotiated identities in the context of hegemonic structures like religion—and the other domesticates their voices in the service of countering the legacy of the Black Legend. At its weakest points, the goal of the second book overshadows that of the first, and characters whom we know little about—like Yaff and Nell—become tools for explaining “the solidification of racial boundaries.” However, both despite and because of these moments, Block’s Ordinary Lives has much to teach students of Atlantic history about the benefits and the limitations of micro-historical methodologies.[5]


[1] Lara Putnam, “The Study the Fragments/While: Microhistory and the Atlantic World, Journal of Social History, Vol. 39, No. 3 (Spring, 2006): 615-630; Rebecca J. Scott, “Small-Scale Dynamics of Large Scale Processes, The American Historical Review, Vol. 105, No. 2 (April, 2000): 472-479; Kristen Block, Ordinary Lives in the Early Caribbean: Religion, Colonial Competition, and the Politics of Profit (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012), 3-5, 16.

[2] Ibid. 230.

[3] Ibid. 234, 6.

[4] Ibid. 16, 238.

[5] Ibid. 3, 5, 10, 15, 89, 212.

What’s the Point of a Middle Ground? Reflections from Two Works by James Merrell and Sophie White

SOPHIE WHITE. Wild Frenchmen and Frenchified Indians: Material Culture and Race in Colonial Louisiana. Early American Studies. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012. Pp. x, 355. $24.95. Paperback. ISBN: 978-0-8122-4437-3.

JAMES H. MERRELL. “The Indians’ New World: The Catawba Experience.” The William and Mary Quarterly 41, 4 (October, 1984): 537-565.

A quarter century has passed since the historian of Early America, Richard White, articulated the concept of the “middle ground” as a geographic, cultural, and temporal space of mutual accommodation between Native American and European peoples on the North American continent. In first introducing this idea through a case study of the pays d’en haut or Great Lakes region, White described it thus: “The Middle Ground is the place in between: in between cultures, peoples, and in between empires and the nonstate world of villages. It is a place where many of the North American subjects and allies of empire lived. It is the area between the historical foreground of European invasion and occupation and the background of Indian defeat and retreat.” While neither of the two works under review here use the phrase “middle ground,” both of them are attempts at tackling the same underlying question of mutual accommodation and the spaces in-between. Both of them use specific case studies—the Catawba of the Carolina piedmont and the Illinois of French colonial Louisiana—for exploring the ways in which native peoples adapted to European colonization and, conversely, the ways in which those adaptations were received by colonizers.[1] Continue reading “What’s the Point of a Middle Ground? Reflections from Two Works by James Merrell and Sophie White”

Review of Death of a Notary by Donna Merwick

DONNA MERWICK. Death of a Notary: Conquest and Change in Colonial New York. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999. Pp. xvi, 304. $24.95. Paperback. ISBN: 0801487889.

What happens to a people when they are conquered by a foreign imperial power? How are their everyday lives and the ways in which they are remembered changed by the circumstances of their conquest? These questions lay at the heart of Donna Merwick’s engaging microhistory, Death of a Notary. Merwick’s text is a narrative that uses the life of a seventeenth-century Dutch notary—named Adriaen Janse van Ilpenda, or simply “Janse”—as a metaphor for exploring the effects of imperial conquest generally, and the transition of power from the Dutch to the English in colonial New York specifically. Overall, Merwick’s work is a testament to the saying that a writer’s choice of subject goes a long way toward dictating the success of their project. As a low-level civil servant who spent his career documenting the ambitions and grievances of a largely forgotten community during some of its most turbulent years, Janse is a historian’s treasure. His biography has the potential to teach us volumes about the long- and short-term effects of imperial conquest. Continue reading “Review of Death of a Notary by Donna Merwick”

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