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On Atlantic Africa and the British Empire (1655-1807)

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Case Studies of East African History in the Nineteenth Century — Zanzibar and Mozambique

GWYN CAMPBELL. “The East African Slave Trade, 1861-1895: The ‘Southern’ Complex, The International Journal of African Historical Studies, Vol. 22, no. 1 (1989): 1-26.

ABDUL SHERIFF.  Slaves, Spices, and Ivory in Zanzibar: Integration of an East African Commercial Empire into the World Economy, 1770-1873. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1987.

Introduction

The readings for this week are the second in a series of two case studies on specific regions of East Africa in the eighteenth century. East Africa is an area that includes Mozambique and the Great Lakes Region. Situated on the western Indian Ocean, this region corresponds to the present-day coasts of Mozambique, Tanzania, and southeastern Kenya, as well as Madagascar and various nearby islands like Comoros, Mayotte, Réunion, and Mauritius. The area also includes many hinterland regions of Eastern Africa, such as present-day Zimbabwe, Malawi, Zambia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, and Uganda. In the late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the principal ports of Eastern Africa were Sofala in Mozambique and Zanzibar in Tanzania. These ports were occupied mainly by Swahili, Portuguese, Omani, and Indian traders. The readings assigned for this week are both secondary sources, one on south and one on north East Africa. The first is an article on slavery in late-nineteenth century Mozambique by Gwyn Campbell. The second is an historical survey by Adbul Sheriff entitled Slaves, Spices, and Ivory in Zanzibar.

Gwyn Campbell’s “The East African Slave Trade”

In his article, “The East African Slave Trade,” the historian Gwyn Campbell re-investigates the nineteenth-century history of what scholars often call the “southern” East African slave trade.[1] This slave trade took place on the coast and in the interior of present-day Mozambique from Kilwa southward. Campbell argues that slave-importing and exporting islands located in the western Indian Ocean, especially Madagascar, are “the ‘missing link’ in the history of East Africa in general and of the East African slave trade in particular.”[2] He observes that historians have appreciated the degrees to which some foreign markets have shaped the East African slave trade, such as those in the Persian Gulf and those in Cuba and Brazil before that export trade was closed around the 1850s. Nonetheless, historians have not fully appreciated the “trans-Mozambique Channel trade,” which flourished in the last three decades of the nineteenth century, carrying East Africans from modern-day Mozambique to burgeoning markets on Madagascar and then to its surrounding islands.[3] As a way to address this gap in the literature, Campbell positions Madagascar at the center of the history of the East African slave trade. He covers from the re-opening of the Merina Empire of Madagascar to foreign investment in 1861 to the French takeover of Madagascar in 1895.[4]

Campbell traces the history of the East African slave trade in the late-nineteenth century to a series of new “manpower” or “labor shortages” in the western Indian Ocean. French traders from the Mascarene islands addressed these labor shortages in their colonies by buying enslaved people from Swahili and Arab traders on the coast of Mozambique, and also by purchasing East African or Malagasy slaves from markets in Western Madagascar.[5] Likewise, the Merina Empire handled its own labor problems by importing and then often re-exporting East Africans from Mozambique, while also exporting certain peoples form the interior of Madagascar. Meanwhile, an entire cast of intermediaries emerged to facilitate Madagascar’s “two-way traffic in slaves.”[6] This cast included traders of Arab origin in Northwest Madagascar, called Antalaotra; traders of British-Indian origin in the same area, called Karany; and various kingdoms, republics, and private traders on the coast and interior of Madagascar. Examples of this last group are Sakalava and Bara chiefs, the Betsiriry and Antanosy slave communities, and independent Mascarene middlemen like the Samat and Rossier brothers, all of which generally worked in the southwest of the island.[7] Finally, Campbell adds to this diversity European, South African, and American traders working in the region.[8] Continue reading “Case Studies of East African History in the Nineteenth Century — Zanzibar and Mozambique”

Case Studies of East African History in the Nineteenth Century — Uganda

HOLLY HANSON. “Stolen People & Autonomous Chiefs in Nineteenth-Century Buganda: The Social Consequences of Non-Free Followers.” In Slavery in the Great Lakes Region of East Africa, edited by Henri Médard and Shane Doyle, 161-173. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2007.

MICHAEL W. TUCK. “Women’s Experiences of Enslavement & Slavery in Late Nineteenth- & Early Twentieth-Century Uganda.” In Slavery in the Great Lakes Region of East Africa, edited by Henri Médard and Shane Doyle, 174-188. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2007.

Introduction

The readings for this week are the first in a series of two case studies on specific regions of East Africa in the nineteenth century. East Africa is an area that includes Mozambique and the Great Lakes Region. Situated on the western Indian Ocean, this area corresponds to the present-day coasts of Mozambique, Tanzania, and southeastern Kenya, as well as Madagascar and various nearby islands like Comoros, Mayotte, Réunion, and Mauritius. The area also includes many hinterland regions of Eastern Africa, such as present-day Zimbabwe, Malawi, Zambia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, and Uganda. The readings assigned for this week are two selected chapters from an edited volume by Henri Médard and Shane Doyle entitled Slavery in the Great Lakes Region of East Africa. They are both about slavery in Uganda in the nineteenth century.

Hanson’s “Stolen People & Autonomous Chiefs in Nineteenth-Century Buganda”

In this piece, Hanson explores the social consequences of a new form of chiefship emerging in the Kingdom of Buganda, located in the present-day nation of Uganda. She explores this subject from its probable origins in the mid-eighteenth century under King Namugala to the early colonial period. This new form of chiefship was known as ekitongole in the singular and ebitongole in the plural. Essentially, these ebitongole are organized, specialized, and institutionalized groups of non-free war captives (read: slaves) that were acquired in Buganda’s wars of imperial expansion. These wars went on from about the late-seventeenth through the nineteenth century. The ebitongole were a way to organize the labor of war captives on new and unoccupied land. This form of labor organization was fundamentally different from the ways that labor had been structured previously. Rather than Baganda followers being named after chiefs or significant historical events, the ebitongole were named for the type of labor that they were expected to perform, whether that be clearing forests, hunting animals to protect local communities, making war, gathering ivory, growing provisions for the caravan trade, or engaging in some other form of work entirely.

Hanson argues that the ebitongole profoundly destabilized the Buganda Kingdom by breaking down the social order that had prevailed before their creation. The ebitongole challenged prior social structures in several key ways. First, chiefs had previously competed against one another to obtain followers, and they did so by appealing to the recognized prestige of the kabaka or Buganda King. Now, however, the chiefs did not have to compete for the kabaka’s authority since they had less of a need to obtain the allegiance of free followers. Likewise, the kabaka were no longer reliant on labor tribute from the chiefs because they had their own ebitongole. Meanwhile, the ebitongole undermined established traditions of gift exchange between the chiefs and the kabaka, and hurt the kabaka’s ability to maintain the kingdom’s balance of power through distributing land. The erosion of these reciprocal relationships between the kabaka and chiefs is epitomized by the high turnover rate of kabaka between 1670 and 1812, as well as the proliferation of new chiefs at the expense of those who traditionally held land. Lastly, since the rise of the ebitongole made Buganda chiefs less dependent on having free followers, they also eroded the status of free or ordinary Ganda citizens. Everyday people had less of an ability to leverage political allegiance to their social advantage. Continue reading “Case Studies of East African History in the Nineteenth Century — Uganda”

Case Studies of West African History in the Eighteenth Century — The Bights of Benin and Biafra

G. UGO NWOKEJI. The Slave Trade and Culture in the Bight of Biafra: An African Society in the Atlantic World. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

KRISTIN MANN. Chapter 1 of Slavery and the Birth of an African City: Lagos, 1760-1900. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007. Chapter 1 is called “The Rise of Lagos as an Atlantic Port, 1760-1851,” 23-50.

Introduction

The readings for this week are the last in a series of four case studies about specific regions of West Africa in the eighteenth century. This fourth case study is about the Eastern Bight of Benin and the Bight of Biafra. The entire Bight of Benin stretched from about the River Volta in the west to the River Nun in the east. In the eighteenth century, its eastern half included hinterland empires like Oyo and Benin and coastal towns like Porto Novo, Badagry, Lagos, Lekki, and Mahin. Meanwhile, the Bight of Biafra picked up where the Bight of Benin terminated. It stretched from roughly the Niger Delta eastward across present-day Nigeria and then south to Cape Lopez in modern-day Gabon. New Calabar and Bonny, located in the Niger Delta, and Old Calabar, located in the Cross Rivers Region, were just a few of its most heavily trafficked slave ports. Today, the combined area of the Eastern Bight of Benin and the Bight of Biafra encompasses the coastline of Nigeria, Cameroon, and Equatorial Guinea, as well as the northern half of Gabon. The readings assigned for this week are both secondary sources. The first is a chapter from the historian Kristin Mann’s book on precolonial Lagos, entitled Slavery and the Birth of an African City. The second is the historian G. Ugo Nwokeji’s 2010 monograph The Slave Trade and Culture in the Bight of Biafra.

Kristin Mann’s “The Rise of Lagos as an Atlantic Port, c. 1760-1851”

In her chapter, “The Rise of Lagos as an Atlantic Port,” Kristin Mann discusses the history of Lagos from 1760 to 1851.[1] The first date represents the decade in which European traders began visiting Lagos regularly, and the second date represents the British bombardment of Lagos, a watershed moment when British military forces helped the deposed monarch Akitoye retake the lagoon city from the Oba Kosoko. In this chapter, Mann provides a brief overview of Lagos’s history prior to the rise of the slave trade in the 1760s, outlines the dimensions of the slave trade throughout Lagos’s history, and then uses local oral traditions to recreate an indigenous narrative of the Kingdom of Lagos’s political history from roughly the reign of Akinsemoyin (1760-1775) to the reconquest by Akitoye with the help of the British in 1851. In the process, Mann shows how the Kingdom of Lagos “transformed its capital into an international port linking West Africa’s hinterland to the Atlantic World.”[2] Lagos went from a locus of regional trade in the eastern Bight of Benin to a primary international port of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Meanwhile, the institution of slavery moved from the margins of Lagosian society to became a major influence on its politics.[3]

Before the 1500s, the lagoon of Lagos was settled by a group of Yoruba-speaking migrants from Isheri called the Awori. The Awori intermarried with earlier inhabitants and later lived alongside the settlements of other Yoruba-speaking immigrant groups like Aja and Ijebu. They were led by a ruler called the olófin, and they traced their heritage to the ancient city-state of Ile-Ife. Portuguese sailors became the first Europeans to trade in the lagoon area around 1500. It was them who gave Lagos its name, derived from the Portuguese word for lake. In the second half of the sixteenth century, Lagos was occupied by an Edo-speaking military expedition from Benin City in the east. By 1682, Lagos had officially become as a royal province of the Kingdom of Benin, complete with its own dynastic, oligarchic, and administrative structure. Nonetheless, Lagos became “largely autonomous by the eighteenth century.”[4] Although European traders had periodically visited Lagos during the seventeenth century, they would not begin coming regularly until the 1760s. Slave exports from Lagos were minimal throughout the eighteenth century, but they soared during the first fifty years of the nineteenth century. Between 1800 and 1850, Lagos emerged as the largest exporter of slaves from the Bight of Benin and then the leading port north of the equator.[5] Continue reading “Case Studies of West African History in the Eighteenth Century — The Bights of Benin and Biafra”

Case Studies of West African History in the Eighteenth Century — The Slave Coast

ROBIN LAW. First half of Ouidah: The Social History of a West African Slaving ‘Port,’ 1727-1892. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2004. The first half covers the eighteenth century, 1-154.

SILKE STRICKRODT. “In Search of a Moral Community: Little Popo and the Atlantic Trade in the Mid-Eighteenth Century,” Transactions of the Historical Society of Ghana, New Series, No. 14 (2012): 105-130.

Introduction

The readings for this week are the third in a series of four case studies about specific regions of West Africa in the eighteenth century. This third case study is on the “Slave Coast,” an area on the Gulf of Guinea that stretched from the River Volta in the west to the Lagos Channel in the east. This area comprised small portions of western Ghana and eastern Nigeria as well as all of modern-day Togo and Benin. The region is often known to historians as the Bight or Gulf of Benin, though sometimes the Slave Coast is described as the Bight’s western half. During the eighteenth century, the Slave Coast hosted a variety of European traders at its many coastal ports, like Jakin or Badagry in the east and Keta in the west. Danish, Dutch, English, French, and Portuguese traders all conducted business here with private individuals and representatives of African kingdoms like Dahomey and Little Popo. The readings assigned for this week are both secondary sources. They discuss two different parts of the coast. One is the first half of Robin Law’s monograph Ouidah: The Social History of a West African Slaving ‘Port.’ This half surveys the eighteenth-century history of Ouidah, a city near the shore of present-day Benin.[1] The other is an article on African-European trade relations at the port of Little Popo, which is today the town of Aného in the nation of Togo.

Silke Strickrodt’s “In Search of a Moral Community”

In his article, “In Search of a Moral Community,” historian Silke Strickrodt examines trading relations between European and African merchants at the port of Little Popo, which is situated on the Western Slave Coast in what is now the nation of Togo. Strickrodt examines these relations during the reign of Ashampo, who ruled the Ge Kingdom of Little Popo between the years of 1737 and 1767. Strickrodt approaches her subject by using the concept of the “moral community,” which she basically defines as a mutual, cross-cultural system of values that serves to stabilize commerce. In the “moral community,” traders establish a shared system of values, generally around a common binding principle like ethnicity, religion, or political allegiance. This system of values gives traders confidence that their contracts will be honored or guaranteed by the opposing party. It also creates a situation where traders are comfortable taking risks, like extending credit or opening permanent centers (known as “lodges” on the Western Slave Coast).[2] Alternatively, a “moral community” can be established by the presence of a strong and reliable intermediary, such as a centralized state. As Strickrodt explains, this was the case with other areas of West Africa. A notable example is further to the east, where the Kingdoms of Dahomey, Oyo, and eventually Bonny operated.[3]

But Strickrodt argues that Little Popo is a peculiar trading center. She concludes that, even though “there was no effective ‘moral community’ between African and European traders at Little Popo in the period of Ashampo’s reign,” European merchants continued to do business there.[4] Her main research question is, then, how can historians explain the continuance of trade at Little Popo despite the absence of traditional mechanisms for ensuring trust among trading partners? As a king, Ashampo neither guaranteed the sanctity of contract nor cultivated an environment of trust; rather, he engaged in a short-term strategy of ripping-off European traders, playing them off one another, and otherwise deceiving them. Meanwhile, the particular geographic makeup of the Western Slave Coast meant that European traders needed to come on shore to do business. As a result, they were ever at the mercy of the African traders with whom they negotiated. They were periodically taken captive, robbed, killed, or swindled. Nonetheless, Strickrodt argues that European traders continued to do business at Little Popo because it presented a “high-risk – high-reward environment” in an era of heightened demand for slaves, increasing competition among European powers, and new demand for alternative sources of procuring slaves. Despite the myriad difficulties posed by Little Popo, Europeans could occasionally depend on Ashampo for a quick boatload of slaves.[5] Continue reading “Case Studies of West African History in the Eighteenth Century — The Slave Coast”

Case Studies of West African History in the Eighteenth Century — The Gold Coast

MARGARET PRIESTLEY. “The Ashanti Question and the British: Eighteenth-Century Origins,” Journal of African History 2, No. 1 (1961): 35-59.

ANN BOWER STAHL. Chapter VI of Making History in Banda: Anthropological Visions of Africa’s Past (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001). Chapter VI is called “The Changing Social Fields of Banda Villagers, c. 1725-1825,” 148-188.

Introduction

The readings for this week are the second in a series of four case studies on specific regions of West Africa in the eighteenth century. This second case study is on the Gold Coast, an area that roughly corresponds to the present-day nation of Ghana. Situated on the Gulf of Guinea, between what is today the nations of Côte d’Ivoire and Togo, Ghana comprises approximately 350 miles of coastline and extends for several hundred miles inland. During the eighteenth-century, this region was known to European traders as the Gold Coast.[1] It was slightly larger, extending eastward from the Komoe River in present-day Côte d’Ivoire to the Volta River. The region may have been home to more than forty separate sovereign polities.[2] These included centralized states, like the Ashanti, as well as coastal federations, like the Fante. Although Portuguese traders were the first Europeans to set up forts in the region in the late fifteenth century, the British and the Dutch were the primary European commercial powers throughout the 1700s.[3] The readings assigned for this week are secondary sources. One is an excerpt on the eighteenth century from Making History in Banda by the anthropological archaeologist Ann Bower Stahl. And the other is an article written by the historian Margaret Priestley that explores aspects of Gold Coast politics between 1765 and 1772.

Margaret Priestley’s “The Ashanti Question and the British”

In “The Ashanti Question and the British,” the historian Margaret Priestley investigates the years 1765 to 1772, what she refers to as an “early chapter in the history of the British relationship with Ashanti and Fante.”[4] Priesley sets up her piece by arguing that historians have paid too much attention to the year 1807. They have positioned 1807 as the origin of “a strong Anglo-Fante link” that served as a protection of commerce and as a bulwark against other powers, notably the Ashanti and the Dutch.[5] 1807 is significant because it was during that year that the Ashanti empire orchestrated an invasion of the coast and compelled the resident leaders of British stations, like the factory at Anomabu, to openly declare their support for the Fante confederation.[6] While Priestley does not deny the importance of this 1807 event, she argues that it should not be interpreted as the beginning of the Anglo-Fante alliance. Rather, agents of the official British Company of Merchants had been “actively involved in the Ashanti question long before” 1807.[7] Moreover, both the Councilmembers and the Governors of the major British factories—Case Coast Castle, Anomabu, Fort James—had articulated their plans to support the Fante and oppose what they perceived as a Dutch-Ashanti alliance several times before. As Priestley demonstrates, the politics of 1807 had forerunners during Ashanti coastal invasions or invasion scares that took place in 1765, 1767, and 1772.[8]

The strength of this article is in how Priestly explores the politics of the eighteenth-century Gold Coast from a variety of angles. She shows us how the powerful inland empire of the Ashanti, led by the Asantehene Osei Kojo in the 1760s, wants to break their dependence upon the Fante as middleman of the Atlantic trade. This ambition leads the Ashanti into conflict with various coastal states, like Wassaw and Akim, that control the western and eastern trading routes from the Ashanti capital at Kumasi. It also leads them into conflict with the Fante—a “coastal coalition” to use the term coined by the historian Rebecca Shumway—whose republic lies on the doorstep of the British and Dutch factories.[9] On the one hand, British actors back in the metropole, like the Committee of the Company of Merchants and the Board of Trade and Plantations, advocates a position of neutrality with all native powers and collaboration with the Dutch in settling any dispute. On the other hand, British actors on the ground in the Gold Coast advocate for a position of preserving the Fante republic against what they understand as a more-autocratic, and thus less amenable to negotiation, Ashanti Empire. This position is strengthened by the fact that Dutch interests, based out of Elmina, have been secretly encouraging an Ashanti takeover of the coast since the 1760s. Throughout this article, Priestley demonstrates how all of these interests converged before the 1807 event.[10] Continue reading “Case Studies of West African History in the Eighteenth Century — The Gold Coast”

Case Studies of West African History in the Eighteenth Century — The Senegambia Region

BOUBACAR BARRY. Part II of Senegambia and the Atlantic Slave Trade. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Part II is called “Senegambia in the Eighteenth Century: the Slave Trade, Ceddo Regimes, and Muslim Revolutions,” 55-126.

MICHAEL GOMEZ. “Bundu in the Eighteenth Century,” The International Journal of African Historical Studies, Vol. 20, No. 1 (1987): 61-73.

Introduction

The readings for this week are the first in a series of four case studies about specific regions of West Africa in the eighteenth century. The first case study is on Senegambia, an area that encompasses parts of the present-day nations of Mauritania, Mali, Senegal, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, and Sierra Leone. Historically, the Senegambian area is somewhat ambiguous. Some historians refer to the area between the Senegal and Gambia Rivers as Senegambia, while others make a distinction between this area, which they call northern Senegambia, and the region south of the Gambia River, which they variously define as southern Senegambia, the “Southern Rivers,” or the “Rivers of Guinea” and Sierra Leone.[1] Occasionally, scholars refer to the entire region as the “Upper Guinea Coast.” Other times, they deploy that term more exclusively for southern Senegambia.[2] The readings assigned for this week are secondary sources. One is an excerpt about the eighteenth century from the historian Boubacar Barry’s survey Senegambia and the Atlantic Slave Trade, and the other is an article written by the historian Michael Gomez about the polity of Bundu in northern Senegambia. I will briefly discuss Gomez’s piece before proceeding to Barry’s.

Michael Gomez’ “Bundu in the Eighteenth Century”

In “Bundu in the Eighteenth Century,” the historian Michael Gomez traces the history of a single polity in the Senegambia region from roughly 1698 to 1790. This polity is Bundu. According to oral tradition, it was founded by a Torodbe cleric named Malik Sy in 1698, and it was ruled by his descendants, called the Sissibe, until it was dismantled by the French in 1905.[3] Gomez argues that the eighteenth century was a crucial era of Bundu’s development, “for it was during this period that Bundu emerged from an obscure grouping of villages [scattered in the upper Senegal valley] into a sovereign government of some significance.”[4] Gomez narrates the history of Bundu largely through the reigns of its various leaders (known as elimans and later almaamis), with the objective of establishing a more-reliable chronology for Bundu’s evolution. He concludes that the watershed administration is that of the expansionist  Maka Jiba, a grandson of the kingdom’s founder. “It was under Maka Jiba,” Gomez observes, “that the commercial nature of Bundu was established, as well as the military tradition necessary to maintain and expand control of trade.”[5] Equally important to understanding Bundu’s eighteenth-century history is the over two-decade reign of Amadi Gai, one of Maka Jiba’s sons. Amadi Gai presided over an Islamic reform movement in Bundu after facing external pressure from the centralized Islamic states of Futa Jallon and Futa Toro.[6]

Gomez draws several broad conclusions from his research into Bundu that are worth noting in a discussion of the Senegambia region. First, Gomez proclaims that “the attempt to control trade of the upper Senegal valley became the chief concern of every government in the region” throughout the eighteenth century.[7] In practice, this belief means that Senegambian trade routes lay at the center of the region’s history. One cannot engage with Bundu’s history without accounting for the history of various other polities and peoples. These include the English and French presences upon the Gambia and Senegal Rivers, the presence of raiding Moroccan and Mauritian armies, the Malinke villages along the Falémé River, the interior towns of Bambuk, the neighboring communities in Galaam, and the centralized and powerful states of Futa Jallon and Futa Toro. As Gomez demonstrates, for example, Bundu’s political and military exploits are intimately connected to these latter states through ancestral lineages. These states had the ability to sway the outcome of military conquest in Bundu through their leaders’ decisions to sanction or withhold support. Likewise, Gomez’ thesis about trade leads him to imply an argument about the nature of conquest in the Senegambian region. Though religion played a crucial role in Bundu’s eighteenth-century development, historians should not be so eager to label regional wars as jihad. A closer look at the campaigns of Maka Jiba, for instance, reveal that “economic considerations outweighed religious affinity.”[8] Continue reading “Case Studies of West African History in the Eighteenth Century — The Senegambia Region”

Surveys of West African History in the Eighteenth Century — A Classic Work by Philip D. Curtin

PHILIP D. CURTIN. The Image of Africa: British Ideas and Action, 1780-1850, Vol. I. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1964.[1]

Introduction

The primary reading for this week is The Image of Africa. It is a classic study by the historian Philip D. Curtin about British ideas and action related to West Africa from 1780 to 1850. This is also the first in a series of two weeks that will focus on British perceptions of Africa in the early-modern era. Published in 1964, The Image of Africa belongs to a generation of works that emerged during the professionalization of African History in the 1950s and early 1960s. As David William Cohen, Stephan Miescher, and Luise White explain in the introduction to their 2001 edited volume, African Words, African Voices, the field of African History had its precedents, however, it emerged as an academic discipline “after the Second World War, when Europeans and Africans were awakening to nationalist rhetoric from many arenas across the continent and the world.”[2] It was in this era of African decolonization, when a host of new researchers were starting to study contemporary African cultures, that Curtin turned his attention to the years before 1850. What he discovered was a relative Golden Age of interest in African societies on par with his present generation. “Relative to their knowledge of the world in general,” Curtin explains, “eighteenth-century Europeans knew more and cared more about Africa than they did at any later period up to the 1950s.”[3] Building off of this initial observation, The Image of Africa seeks not only to explain Britain’s remarkable interest in Africa before 1800, but also to trace its hardening and decline by the 1850s.

Before I discuss some of the ways that The Image of Africa contributes to eighteenth-century African History, it would be helpful to outline both the scope and the thesis of the book. Curtin breaks The Image of Africa into three distinctive parts that correspond to major developments in Britain’s ideas about the continent. The first part focuses on British views of Africa and Africans in the eighteenth century, and it is entitled “The ‘New World’ of Eighteenth Century Africa.”[4] The second part is entitled “The Age of Exploration and Disappointment,” and it covers the years between 1795 and 1830.[5] Finally, the third part is entitled “The Age of Humanitarianism.” It stretches from about 1830 to 1850.[6] Afterward, in a two-page postscript, Curtin shares his conclusions about “the most striking aspect of the British image of Africa in the early nineteenth century.”[7] He argues that detachment from “African reality, as we now understand it” is the common denominator that underlies all British ideas about Africa during the period of this study. Whether approaching Africa through a discourse of “medicine, race, history, or political and economic development,” European authors manufactured the image of Africa from within a European worldview and largely “to suit European needs.” By the 1850s, this image had hardened into a series of racial and cultural stereotypes. This stagnation was the defining feature of Britain’s attitude toward Africa during the age of imperialism and the colonial era, until it began to change once again in the 1950s.[8] Continue reading “Surveys of West African History in the Eighteenth Century — A Classic Work by Philip D. Curtin”

Oral Sources on West African History in the Eighteenth Century — Case Study from the Kingdom of Dahomey in Benin

JAN VANSINA. Oral Tradition as History. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.

MELVILLE J. & FRANCES S. HERSKOVITS. Selections from Part II of Dahomean Narrative: A Cross-Cultural Analysis. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1958. Part II is called “The Narratives,” 124-324.

Introduction

This review paper is the second part of a two-part series on non-textual sources for studying West African history in the eighteenth century. It is based on a reading of selected narratives from the anthropologists Melville and Francis Herskovits’ 1958 work, Dahomean Narrative, with a bit of comparison to the revised version of the anthropologist Jan Vansina’s Oral Tradition as History. I would like to begin by using Vansina’s work to define what “oral tradition” means in comparison to “oral history.” Oral tradition is defined simply as “reported statements from the past beyond the present generation.”[1] Put a bit differently, the “truly distinctive characteristic of oral tradition is its transmission by word of mouth over a period longer than the contemporary generation.”[2] While oral histories typically pertain to events that took place during the life of the person who is being interviewed, oral traditions extend beyond the lifespan of a single individual; instead, they represent the preserved beliefs of a particular culture, people, or society. Vansina devoted much of his career to the systematic study of oral traditions in African History. He first published Oral Traditions as History in 1959 and then updated the text in 1985. He wrote this guide to introduce historians “to the usual set of rules of historical evidence as they apply to oral traditions.”[3]

Oral Traditions as History is a taxonomic guide for beginners who are looking to use oral traditions as primary sources in their research. Vansina breaks oral traditions down into a series of categories, each with its own set of general rules and principles. There are so many different genres and forms, including epics, tales, proverbs, riddles, myths, testimonies, reminiscences, songs, poetry, genealogies, historical gossip, commentaries, verbal art, and more. While some oral traditions are intended to deliver news, others are intended to be more interpretative; and while some traditions are casual and improvisational, others are solemn and relatively unchanging. Historians must be aware that many traditions vary with the performance and performer. Most of them are culture-bound, fluid, and have undergone both conscious and unconscious alterations.[4] Furthermore, when an historian engages with a particular oral tradition, they must learn to account for the present and the past. As Vansina says, every oral tradition is “the creation of a profile of past history which is the historical consciousness of the present.”[5] Despite these obstacles and quite a few more, Vansina argues that oral traditions are an essential primary source for the study of African history. “Without oral traditions,” he concludes, “we would know very little about the past of large parts of the world, and we would not know them from the inside.”[6] It is with this idea in mind that we turn our attention to the case study from this week’s reading: Dahomean Narrative by the Herskovits’.[7] Continue reading “Oral Sources on West African History in the Eighteenth Century — Case Study from the Kingdom of Dahomey in Benin”

Archaeological Sources on West African History in the Eighteenth Century — Case Studies from South Africa, Bostwana, Namibia, Nigeria, Benin, and Ghana

TOYIN FALOLA AND CHRISTIAN JENNINGS, EDS. Part II of Sources and Methods in African History: Spoken, Written, Unearthed. Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2004. Part II is called “Archaeological Sources,” 3-104.

CHRISTOPHER R. DECORSE AND SAM SPIERS. “A Tale of Two Polities: Socio-Political Transformation on the Gold Coast in the Atlantic World,” Australasian Historical Archaeology, Vol. 27 (2009): 29-42.

Introduction

This review paper is the first part of a two-part series about non-textual sources for studying West African history in the eighteenth century. It is based upon a reading of five essays that provide case studies for working with sources in archaeology and material culture. To begin this paper, I would like to summarize what the anthropologist James Denbow concludes about archaeological source materials in his introduction to the “Archeological Sources” part of Sources and Methods in African History. Writing in the year 2004, Denbow states that the discipline of archaeology has traditionally “served history in a ‘validationist’ role,” meaning that practitioners often took their leads from the documentary record and engaged with archaeology as a way to track and confirm stories that they found in written sources.[1] By now, however, researchers are using archaeological methods in a way that is much more expansive. Instead of a supporting role, material culture plays an equal role alongside oral traditions and written records in the process of historical inquiry. Generally, this means acknowledging the fact that archaeology, like these other two modes of inquiry, suffers from “inherent biases and limitations.” It also means recognizing that archaeology has the potential not only to validate, but to amend old theses and even to propose new ones. [2]

Archaeology and the Study of African History – Conclusions from the Case Studies

For the study of African History more specifically, the rise of material culture as an equally valid mode of historical inquiry carries special meaning. The study of archaeology allows historians to move the geographic and temporal boundaries of analysis beyond areas that were only covered by literary sources. With archaeology, so-called “non-literate” times may be used as a vantage point from which to interpret the historical events of later eras that left behind written records. This is done in Laura Mitchell’s chapter on the spatial geography of Dutch, white settler-colonialism in the Cedarberg frontier of South Africa during the eighteenth century.[3] Mitchell uses mapping techniques to literally overlay sites of Khoisan material culture that date back to the Late Stone Age—identified mostly through rock art and the presence of stone tools—with land-grant data taken from the archives of the Dutch East India Company. What Mitchell discovers is that these maps occupy the exact same spaces. Her research suggests that scholars should not understand the colonial war that Khoisan people waged against Dutch settlers in 1739 as a general confrontation over contested resources, but as an engagement over the right to access and control very “specific pieces of land” that were both environmentally strategic and spiritually sacred to the Khoisan people.[4]

In addition to expanding the geographic and temporal bounds of African History, archaeology allows historians to effectively combat lingering stereotypes about the primitive, primordial, or unchanging African society. This theme comes out in several of this week’s readings. Akinwumi Ogundiran’s piece, for example, brings a much greater definition to the precolonial history of the Yoruba-Edo region (today western Nigeria and Benin). Ogundiran uses the archaeological record to outline “six cultural historical phases” that defined the area from 500 BC to 1800 AD. The result is a “long-term chronological scheme” that historians can now use for “understanding the origins, changes, and continuities of the cultural institutions in the region over time.”[5] Ogundiran bases his historical schema off of changes that are visible in the material culture of the region. One piece of evidence, for example, that testifies to the ascendancy of a confederacy-style political structure in the region during what Ogundiran defines as the Early Formative Period (500-800 AD) is the proliferation of defensive embankments, ditches, and ramparts. To mention just one additional example, Ogundiran tracks Ile-Ife’s rise to political and cultural dominance during the Classical Period  (1000-1400 AD) through its monopolization and exportation of several new artistic traditions, like terracotta ceramics, potsherd architecture, brass casting, and glass-bead production.[6] Continue reading “Archaeological Sources on West African History in the Eighteenth Century — Case Studies from South Africa, Bostwana, Namibia, Nigeria, Benin, and Ghana”

Documentary Sources on West African History in the Eighteenth Century — Texts by and about Suleiman Diallo, Philip Quaque, and Antera Duke

TOYIN FALOLA AND CHRISTIAN JENNINGS, EDS. Part III of Sources and Methods in African History: Spoken, Written, Unearthed. Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2004. Part III is called “Documentary Sources,” 169-238.

PHILIP D. CURTIN ET AL. Part I of Africa Remembered: Narratives by West Africans from the Era of the Slave Trade. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1967. Part I is called “African Travelers of the Eighteenth Century, 3-139, omitting the section on Olaudah Equiano, 60-98.

STEPHEN D. BEHRENDT, A.J.H. LATHAM, AND DAVID NORTHRUP. Part II of The Diary of Antera Duke: An Eighteenth-Century African Slave Trader. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. Part II is called “Extracts from the Diary of Antera Duke,” 133-220.

Introduction:

The main readings for this week are documentary sources for studying West African history in the eighteenth century. Two of these sources were written by West African peoples themselves, while the third was written by a European man yet based off of his interactions with a West African. Additionally, two of the sources appear as excerpts in Africa Remembered, an edited volume compiled by the historian Philip Curtin. They come from the book’s first part, entitled “African Travelers of the Eighteenth Century.”[1] The first source is the published slave narrative of a Fulbe Muslim trader named Ayuba Suleiman Diallo (1734). The second is a series of letters from a Fanti missionary, slave factory chaplain, and sharity school teacher named Philip Quaque (1766-1811). In addition, the diary of a prominent Efik chief and slave trader named Antera Duke Ephrim constitutes the third source (1785-1788). Taken together, these three documentary sources not only represent different regions of Africa but also different experiences with the slave trade and different genres of writing. Finally, chapters taken from Sources and Methods in African History, compiled by Toyin Falola and Christian Jennings, provide context for analyzing these narratives.

In his introduction to the “Documentary Sources” section of Sources and Methods in African History, Thomas Spear explains why historians of Africa have been more reluctant to critically engage with written primary sources than scholars of other fields.[2] Documentary sources for studying African history, particularly from the long eighteenth-century, are both rare and problematic. As the African philosopher V.Y. Mudimbe has demonstrated in a detailed theoretical and historiographical critique, called The Invention of Africa, these sources often reflect ‘Western epistemologies’ such as ‘discourses on African primitiveness.’ These epistemological frameworks typically fail to engage with how African peoples thought of themselves and their own societies.[3] As Spear explains, the problematic nature of documentary sources has led African historians to devote their energies to developing alternative materials for understanding he African past. These innovative departures are epitomized by scholarship like that of Jan Vansina. An historian and anthropologist of Africa, Vansina devoted much of his career to developing a guide for fieldworkers who want to employ oral traditions as a primary source for understanding both the past and present of African societies. Vansina’s work, written up in 1959 and then updated in 1985, has demonstrated that oral traditions are a complex, diverse, and necessary component of historical research in African societies. They are not just a medium to be turned to when written materials are unavailable.[4]

Inspired by the innovative methods of anthropologists like Vansina and the cogent critiques of philosophers like Mudimbe, many scholars of Africa are starting to revisit the historical potential of documentary source materials, especially when these materials are interpreted in new ways. In a series of three essays on written source materials of the nineteenth-century, Christian Jennings, Kristin Mann, and Meredith McKittrick offer case studies that suggest why “documentary sources remain vital to our historical understanding, no matter who produced them and how and why they did so.”[5] These authors reaffirm the view that, just like oral traditions, written source materials can spark historical revelations about African societies when historians approach them with thoughtful questions. For example, in revisiting early Church records from East Africa in the 1840s and 1850s, Jennings demonstrates that missionaries had a much better understanding of the cultures of Massai and Iloikop pastoralists than later historians were willing to concede. The missionaries had interpreted these Rift Valley societies through the lens of their own prejudices, like Mudimbe explains, but they also based their ethnographic work on local informants from within the communities. As a result, when their works are carefully studied, they have the potential to affect some of our most longstanding historical assumptions—in this case, about the evolution of Massai identity. It is with this view in mind that we turn to our three readings from the eighteenth century.[6]

Continue reading “Documentary Sources on West African History in the Eighteenth Century — Texts by and about Suleiman Diallo, Philip Quaque, and Antera Duke”

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’”

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”

From Chicanismo to Chuy: The Long History of the Chicano Movement in Chicago’s Lower West Side, 1965-2015

Note:  For a PDF version of this graduate research prospectus, which includes all of its appendices, please see the following link: From Chicanismo to Chuy — Recovering the Long History of the Chicano Movement in Chicago’s Lower West Side, 1965-2015

INTRODUCTION:

The Chicago Tribune printed historic news on Tuesday night, February 24, 2015. The Mexican-American politician, Jesús G. “Chuy” García, succeeded in forcing a runoff against his opponent in the previous day’s mayoral election. The runoff, scheduled for Tuesday, April 7, became the first runoff in the history of Chicago mayoral elections. Though García lost that race by 11.4%, he had come closer to obtaining the highest office in the third largest city of the United States than any Latino/a politician before him. The closest comparison had been Gery Chico, who became the first Mexican-American to run for the office of mayor in 2011. Nonetheless, García topped Chico’s vote by 9.6% in the 2015 General Election. He captured majorities in every one of the fourteen wards dominated by “Hispanic” residents except for one: the 13th. More specifically, the 22nd, 12th, and 25th wards roughly corresponded to the Latino/a barrios of Chicago’s Lower West Side. García won these wards by ratios of 80%, 75% and 61% respectively. In part, his strong showing drew upon the fact that Chicago Latinos/as were more influential than they had ever been, at 33% of the city’s population, 19% of its voting-age citizens, and a handful of its elected officials. Yet, in order to fully understand these successes, we must go all the way back to the 1960s and 70s.[1]

García had a long and storied career that culminated in the 2015 runoff. More importantly, that career mirrored larger trends in postwar, Mexican-American activism for Civil Rights. He was born in Mexico in 1956, but he moved to Chicago at the age of nine because his father was a farm laborer in the WWII-era bracero program. When the family settled in the growing Latino/a barrios of the Lower West Side, these areas of the city were quickly filling up with both new migrants and displaced, Spanish-speaking wartime immigrants. García found himself in a rare climate of vigorous Latino/a activism known as the Chicano Movement. Many Latino/a residents in the Lower West Side were uniting under the banner of a new, cultural-nationalist ideology called chicanismo. They were agitating against issues like racism, gang violence, community neglect, immigrant and union rights, poverty, under-education, police brutality, joblessness, and urban renewal. [2]

García witnessed chicanismo activism firsthand. When he was thirteen, for example, over one-hundred Latino/a residents gathered in the street to attend a public meeting of ALAS. During this meeting, those present endorsed a local Mexican-American activist named Arthur Vásquez as the next executive director of Howell House, Pilsen’s settlement house, which had historically been home to the white, Presbyterian Czech immigrants. Vásquez became the house’s first Mexican-American director, and the center was re-christened Casa Aztlán. This name was a symbol of chicanismo that memorialized the ward’s demographic tipping point. One year later, in 1970, the city’s decennial census recorded the Lower West Side’s first ever Latino/a majority. The barrios Little Village/South Lawndale and Pilsen/Heart of Chicago have retained that majority to this day.[3]

Continue reading “From Chicanismo to Chuy: The Long History of the Chicano Movement in Chicago’s Lower West Side, 1965-2015”

Like Two Waves of the Same Flood: Comparing John Trudell’s Lines from a Mined Mind and Sherwin Bitsui’s Flood Song

SHERWIN BITSUI. Flood Song. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2009. Pp. 73 $15.00. ISBN: 978-1-55659-308-6.

JOHN TRUDELL. Lines from a Mined Mind. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing, 2008. Pp. vii, 270. $18.00. ISBN: 9781555916787.

Introduction:

“Bitter fruit emerges where bitter seed is sown,” sings the native artist John Trudell in one of his 1999 song-poems called “Blue Indians.” “Economic chains all dressed out as reward/Gender race age edged in love and rage/Oppressorman builder keeper of the cage.” In acerbic pieces like this one, listeners can feel the full force of Trudell’s searing and unabashed voice. A radical child of the 1960s and 1970s, and a leading activist of the nation’s Alcatraz-Red Power Movement, he flings his words like sharpened daggers at what he views to be an oppressive and shallow American society—a society that pollutes the minds of its people with the “toxic waste” of consumerism and the “poison” of “fears doubts and insecurity.” In this poem and others, we experience Trudell’s characteristic critique of First World deceit and decadence. His language is biting and direct. There is not much room for ambiguity in lines like “Industrial reservation tyranny stakes its claim” and “Blue Indians emotional siege in a civilized stain.” In fact, many song-poems in his oeuvre, as they appear in his 2008 compilation Lines from a Mined Mind, are unambiguous and impassioned. They feature “political pimps,” “citizen whores,” and “material junkies.” Readers are informed that they are living in a “broken” and “industrially insane” world of “tech no logic slavery.” We are weathering the “oppressor’s brutality” and “surviving genocide because we have to.”[1]

Then there is the poetic work of the native artist Sherwin Bitsui. His groundbreaking book-poem Flood Song was published in 2009, exactly one year after Trudell’s retrospective anthology. Yet the work is strikingly different. The language is much more subtle, nuanced, quiet, intimate, and deeply visual. Scattered across wide savannas of blank, white space are small pools and rivulets of deep imagery. They spread like oases or trickles in a vast desert. Each one draws the reader’s imagination forward, carrying it upon the back of a meandering and powerful current of contemplative visions. There is a “waning lick of moonlight on the dashboard.” Then, we see “A shower of sparks skate across the morning sky;” and, in continuing, we “inhale earth, wind, water/ through the gasoline nozzle/at trail’s end/a flint spear driven into the key switch.” These images are punctuated and fleeting; yet, somehow they form part of a bigger picture. They are like specific, tactile pieces from the fragmented mosaic that is our memory. They are pieces of evidence for an endangered, lived experience. There is a reality embedded in a thought of “a flashing yellow sign,/blinks between charcoal sheets of monsoon rain.” With each deliberate verb, Bitsui somehow manages to conjure an entire world of feeling within his readers. “It is here,” he writes, “that they scoop the granite stones from your chest/snap each rib shut over the highway leading south.”[2]

Continue reading “Like Two Waves of the Same Flood: Comparing John Trudell’s Lines from a Mined Mind and Sherwin Bitsui’s Flood Song”

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