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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”

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]

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.

“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 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]

Notes:

[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.

Research Guide to the Study of Maroons and Marronage in the New World

Image: The Statue of the Unknown Maroon is situated before the presidential palace on the boulevard Champ de Mars in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Also known as “Neg Mawon” in Haitian Kreyòl and “La Negre Marron” in French, this statue was commissioned by the Duvalier government in 1968-1969 to commemorate the slaves who founded the nation. It was created by the Haitian sculptor and architect Albert Mangones.

Summary Paragraph: (cont’d in full post)

Secondary scholarship about maroon communities and the phenomenon of marronage in the New World is vast, interdisciplinary, and extends back at least to the 1920s. Marronage is a widespread phenomenon that cannot be rooted in a single location or bracketed within a single period of time; marronage took place all over the New World during the early-modern era, and many ancestors of the maroons still exist today. As a result of this extraordinary diversity, much of the literature regarding maroon communities is particularistic, and much of it is written in languages other than English, namely Spanish, Dutch, and French. Continue reading “Research Guide to the Study of Maroons and Marronage in the New World”

Essay on the Historiography of Unfree Labor in the English Atlantic World

In Atlantic History: A Critical Appraisal (2009) Jack Greene and Philip Morgan defined the field of Atlantic history as “an analytic construct and an explicit category of historical analysis that historians have devised to help them organize the study of some of the most important developments of the early modern era.” One of the most important historical developments historians have explored through the analytical construct of Atlantic History is the evolution of English and British overseas empire and its relationship to the the rise of capitalism and unfree labor in the early-modern era. These developments were largely ignored during the first four decades of the field’s history, but they stand at the forefront of the discipline in the twenty-first century, as David Armitage declares that “we are all Atlanticists now.”

Continue reading “Essay on the Historiography of Unfree Labor in the English Atlantic World”

Essay on the Historiography of Comparative Slavery in the Atlantic World

Comparative Slavery Image

Fewer twentieth-century historiographical debates have been more engaging than the debate over comparative slavery in the colonial or Atlantic World. Since the early writings of scholars like Mary Williams and Frank Tannenbaum, historians have been actively engaged in debating the exceptionalism of the American slave system, and in comparing the severity of slave systems across contexts. More than anything, the historiography of comparative slavery is a methodological exercise. Comparing slave systems has required historians to address the larger question, “how does one measure the severity of a slave system?” Continue reading “Essay on the Historiography of Comparative Slavery in the Atlantic World”

Review of The Spanish Crown and the Defense of the Caribbean by Paul Hoffman

PAUL E. HOFFMAN. The Spanish Crown and the Defense of the Caribbean, 1535-1585: Precedent, Patrimonialism, and Royal Parsimony. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980. Pp. xiv, 312. $30.00.

The Spanish Crown and the Defense of the Caribbean (Paul Hoffman)The Spanish Crown and the Defense of the Caribbean is the first book written by Paul E. Hoffman, current professor of History at Louisiana State University. Hoffman specializes in the history of colonial Latin America and the American southeast, especially the frontiers of Florida, prior to the year 1821. In this particular work, Hoffman relies upon his in-depth sleuthing of primary sources related to royal defense spending—taken mostly from the General Archives of the Indies (AGI) in Seville—to tell the story of the Spanish crown’s efforts to defend its holdings in the Indies against mostly French and English corsairs between the years 1535 and 1585. Continue reading “Review of The Spanish Crown and the Defense of the Caribbean by Paul Hoffman”

Review of X Marks the Spot by Russel Showronek and Charles Ewen (editors)

RUSSEL K. SHOWRONEK and CHARLES R. EWEN (ed). X Marks the Spot: the archaeology of piracy. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2006. Pp xxvi, 339. Cloth $59.95.

X Marks the Spot ImageX Marks the Spot is a compilation of thirteen essays, all written by American or European scholars, on the historical archaeology of piracy in the early-modern world. The volume is coedited by Associate Professor of Anthropology and Sociology at Santa Clara University, Russel K. Showronek, and Professor of Anthropology at East Caroline University, Charles R. Ewan. As far as the historian is concerned, the work is genuinely valuable in at least two regards: supplying language, context, and imagery to the material record of piracy, and demonstrating the value of collaboration between scientific and historical methodologies. Continue reading “Review of X Marks the Spot by Russel Showronek and Charles Ewen (editors)”

Review of The Slave Ship by Marcus Rediker

MARCUS REDIKER. The Slave Ship: A Human History. New York: Viking Press, 2007. Pp. 434. $27.95.

Introduction:

Slave Ship Book Cover

The Slave Ship is the fourth book written by Marcus Rediker, a prize-winning American historian of the early-modern era and the Atlantic world and a Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Pittsburgh. Through evocative language, fluid narration, poignant imagery, dramatic vignettes, diverse sources, dynamic characters, and bold statistics, Rediker synthesizes the violent nature of the Anglo-American slave trade during its so-called Golden Age, from 1700-1808, for common readership. Continue reading “Review of The Slave Ship by Marcus Rediker”

Review of Capitalism and Slavery by Eric Williams

ERIC WILLIAMS. Capitalism and Slavery. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1944. Pp. ix, 245. $29.95.

Scan cover.jpeg

Capitalism and Slavery is the first and most important work by the late Trinidadian scholar and statesman, Eric Eustace Williams. Based on a dissertation written at the University of Oxford in 1938, entitled “The Economic Aspect of the Abolition of the British West Indian Slave Trade and Slavery,” the work is an “economic study of the role of Negro slavery and the slave trade in providing the capital which financed the industrial revolution in England and of mature industrial capitalism [eventually] destroying the slave system.” More generally, the book documents the historical shift of Britain’s political economy from monopolistic commercial mercantilism based on tropical, Caribbean islands with black-plantation slavery to laissez faire commercial capitalism based on white free-labor factories in temperate, Continental regions. Continue reading “Review of Capitalism and Slavery by Eric Williams”

Review of The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness by Paul Gilroy

PAUL GILROY. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992. Pp. xi, 261. $29.50.

The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double-Consciousness Cover

The Black Atlantic is the third book written by the Afro-English sociologist, scholar of literary and cultural studies, and current professor at the University of London, Paul Gilroy. By taking the “Atlantic as one single, complex unit of analysis,” Gilroy charts the existence of a counterculture to modernity among black intellectuals, activists, writers, speakers, poets, and artists between approximately 1845 and the 1980s. Gilroy positions the hybrid and transnational nature of these figures as a “changing same” that challenges notions of ethnic essentialism, ethnic pluralism, nationalism, and racial purity based in the logic of the Enlightenment and still embedded in the structure of academia. Continue reading “Review of The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness by Paul Gilroy”

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