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]

Notes:

[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.